Gerry Anderson: 1929 – 2013

 

(C) MGM

 

Having just posted a nostalgic piece about the TV programmes of my distant youth, the very last thing I wanted to post now was another entry about more old TV programmes.  However, this week has seen the death of Gerry Anderson, who was perhaps the greatest producer of children’s shows in British TV history, and I think a few words of tribute to Anderson and his creations are due.

 

Gerry Anderson will, of course, be remembered as ‘the puppet man’.  He and his wife Sylvia began making kids’ puppet shows such as The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls in the late 1950s.  In that monochrome and austerity-hit decade, every second children’s programme on British TV seemed to feature misshapen and ultra-cheap wooden figures jerking around in a jungle of marionette strings: Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, Muffin the Mule and Pinky and Perky.  What set the Andersons apart from their competitors, however, was their ambition.  Their audiences might’ve been children and their characters might’ve been children’s playthings, but that didn’t mean they weren’t allowed to be spectacular.  In less than a decade, in fact, the Andersons had refined their puppetry to an art-form.  They called their technical process ‘Supermarionation’ and each of their shows began with the proud declaration, Filmed in Supermarionation.  The result was Thunderbirds.

 

The cast of Thunderbirds might’ve been marionettes, but in all other respects this show – about the adventures of International Rescue, a 21st century organisation run by the heroic Tracy family who used their fabulous and futuristic vehicles and gadgets to save people from crashing airliners and burning skyscrapers – was the James Bond films tailored for children.  As well as gadgetry, explosions and skin-of-the-teeth escapes, it had a secret island headquarters (Tracy Island), an exotic villain (The Hood), a glamorous heroine (Lady Penelope) and a brash 1960s swagger, epitomised in Barry Gray’s strident theme music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_mBUaPsX6o).  Children’s television had never seen the likes of this before.  No wonder Anderson’s boss at ITC Entertainment, the cigar-loving impresario Lord Lew Grade, informed Anderson after seeing the first rushes of Thunderbirds that he wasn’t making TV any more, but feature films.  Grade knew showmanship when he saw it.

 

Another feature that Thunderbirds shared with the best Bond movies was that while it gave international audiences the spectacle they wanted, it retained a certain wry British-ness.  The Tracy family might’ve been Americans – indeed, the demands of voicing Anderson’s shows surely kept Britain’s small community of North American actors, like Ed Bishop and Shane Rimmer, in employment for years – but for British audiences the real stars of Thunderbirds were Lady Penelope and Parker, her Cockney ex-convict butler and chauffeur of her pink Rolls Royce.

 

Researchers into Britain’s class structure must’ve had a field day analysing the relationship between Lady Penelope and the loyal, if sometimes downtrodden, Parker.  At least she tolerated his less socially-acceptable talents, which included being light-fingered and knowing how to crack a safe – and on occasion, when he helped her escape from a tight corner, she was grateful for them.  Lady Penelope was famously voiced by Sylvia Anderson and it’s significant that, following their divorce in the mid-1970s, Gerry Anderson claimed that among all his puppet characters Parker was the one he identified with most.

 

Sure, Thunderbirds looks creaky when viewed today – what film or TV show from the 1960s doesn’t?  The special effects seem a bit dinky, the puppets’ heads are too big for them to be comfortably lifelike and their manner of walking always elicits amusement.  (Any drunkard attempting to move with exaggerated caution from the table to the toilets in a British pub is invariably likened to a ‘Thunderbirds puppet’.)  I can only testify that as a kid, the moment each episode began with that famous countdown (“Five…  Four…  Three…  Two…  One!”), that famous catchphrase (“Thunderbirds are go!”) and that pulse-quickening theme music, a real-life crashing airliner or burning skyscraper would’ve been hard-pressed to divert my attention from the television set.

 

Again like the Bond producers, Anderson knew the value of merchandising tie-ins.  I often found myself standing with my nose pressed against a toyshop window, wishing my pocket money was lavish enough to buy all the miniature Anderson space-vehicles displayed in front of me – Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3, the Mole, Lady Penelope’s Rolls, and other Anderson-show items like Captain Scarlet’s SPV vehicle, UFO’s Interceptors, Skydiver and Mobiles and Space 1999’s Eagles.  The technicians who operated the models for the vehicles and spaceships in Anderson’s shows, men like Derek Meddings and Brian Johnson, later became the backbone of Britain’s movie special-effects industry.  It was thanks to Anderson’s protégés that after the indigenous British film industry died on its arse in the late 1970s, international studios at least kept coming to Britain to make the likes of the Star Wars and Alien movies because of the technical expertise located there.

 

Along the way from Twizzle, Torchy and Four Feather Falls to Thunderbirds, the Andersons had made Supercar, Fireball XL5 and underwater extravaganza StingrayStingray is probably the second-best remembered of Anderson’s shows, partly because it was the first British children’s programme to be filmed in colour and partly because of its camp value.  It was never more camp than at the close of each episode, when Don Mason sang the ballad Aqua Marina in honour of the mute and enigmatic mermaid who helped out the Stingray crew in their battles against the despicable Aquaphibians (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxOYqoPkdc8).  However, it’s Anderson’s shows that came after Thunderbirds that I like best.

 

Joe 90 was a charming sci-fi espionage show with a juvenile and bespectacled hero.  It was just unfortunate that over the next few decades, on account of Joe’s oversized glasses, ‘Joe 90’ became the nickname of every short-sighted kid in Britain’s playgrounds.  Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, meanwhile, returned to Thunderbirds territory and served up more spaceships, gadgets, explosions and spectacle.  The tone was darker, however.  The Mars-based Mysterons whom Captain Scarlet and his gang fought off in every episode were basically terrorists and their habit of taunting the ‘Earthmen’ with messages threatening death and destruction prefigured Osama Bin Laden’s mode of operation decades later.   (I bet little Osama owned all the Gerry Anderson toys when he was a kid in Riyadh in the 1960s.)

 

The puppets in Joe 90 and Captain Scarlet had exact human proportions.  Anderson’s Supermarionation had achieved perfection, in other words.  Accordingly, with nowhere else to take the puppet genre, Anderson moved into live action.  His 1970 show UFO was basically a remake of Captain Scarlet with human actors.   Although UFO is fondly remembered for its kitsch 1970-view-of-the-future fashions, such as Gabrielle Drake’s silver mini-skirt and outrageous purple bob, and although it tapped into every frustrated middle manager’s secret fantasy – Commander Straker (Ed Bishop) pretended to be a desk-bound film producer, but at the touch of a button his office would descend a giant lift shaft into the huge underground headquarters of anti-alien defence force SHADO, which he was the secret boss of – the show was in fact rather bleak.  The aliens who attacked the earth in UFO only did so because they wanted to harvest human organs, and the guest cast rarely made it to the end of each episode alive.  Straker’s devotion to duty had even indirectly caused the death of his young son, something the programme once showed in a painful flashback.

 

By the mid-1970s Anderson was putting together Space 1999, which at the time was the most expensive show in TV history.  It should’ve given him a franchise of Star Trek proportions and brought him fame and fortune.  It didn’t, alas, and the show’s problems were mostly self-inflicted.  Though its special effects were the best yet – some compared them to the space scenes in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey – its scripts often strayed into the metaphysical and ended up muddled and impossible-to-follow.  Also, its leads, Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, were unaccountably dour and uninteresting.  (This was before Landau reinvented himself as a much-loved character actor.)  There were some good performers among the supporting cast, though, including Australian Nick Tate and the wonderful Barry Morse, and the guest cast was among the best to have ever graced a British TV show: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Judy Geeson, Julian Glover, Anthony Valentine, Joan Collins, Roy Dotrice, Ian McShane, Leo McKern and Brian Blessed.  (On Boxing Day afternoon, when word of Anderson’s death was announced, the garrulous Blessed was the first person whom the BBC News Channel found to pay tribute.  Blessed had obviously quaffed a few Christmas sherries by then, but his affection for Anderson shone through.)

 

Space 1999’s worst problem was that, scientifically, it was rubbish.  Its premise was that a massive explosion on the moon’s surface in 1999 caused it to be blown out of the earth’s orbit, along with a moonbase and its 300-strong crew.  From there the runaway satellite and its reluctant passengers careered across the galaxy, managing to encounter a new solar system, and an inhabitable earth-like planet, and a usually-unfriendly alien civilisation in nearly every episode.  The scientist and science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov condemned the show for being preposterous, but even at ten years old I didn’t need Dr Asimov to tell me that.  I knew already that outer space was rather bigger than a fairground ride and if you shot off through it at random you weren’t going to bump into earth-like planets as frequently as dodgem cars.

 

Unwisely, to oversee Space 1999’s second series, Anderson hired American producer Fred Freiberger, who was known in American TV circles as ‘the Show-Killer’ thanks to his habit of taking over shows shortly before they got cancelled.  (He’d produced the last and worst season of the original Star Trek.)  Freiberger dumped the few things that were good about Space 1999’s first season, including Barry Gray’s urgent theme music (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLhdY6_juDk) and poor old Barry Morse.  It became an embarrassing piece of juvenilia and was duly cancelled in 1977.

 

From there on, it was pretty much downhill for Anderson.  Into Infinity was a 1975 special that was meant to launch another live-action science fiction series.  It had Brian Blessed, Nick Tate and Ed Bishop on board and was supposed to be based on proper astronomical knowledge of the universe – maybe Anderson was atoning for the scientific absurdities of Space 1999 – but it never got beyond the pilot stage.  In the 1980s he returned to making puppet shows and the result, Terrahawks, was an amiable but unoriginal rehash of his 1960s glories.  (Inevitably, ‘Zelda’, the intensely wrinkled villainess of Terrahawks, became another nickname in Britain, this time for ladies of a certain age who’d spent too long drying out on their sunbeds.)   In the 1990s he made the terrible live-action show Space Precinct, while in the noughties a computer-generated version of Captain Scarlet came and went with nary a ripple.

 

During this period Anderson was financially as well as creatively unlucky.  He no longer held the rights to Thunderbirds when the BBC got around to rescreening it in the early 1990s.  Thus, when yet another generation of British children went Thunderbirds-daft, and the country’s toyshops filled up again with Thunderbirds merchandising, he didn’t make a penny.  Similarly, Anderson was denied any participation in a live-action version of Thunderbirds that was released in 2004.  The film was directed by an American (Jonathon Frakes) and was aimed only at young children – as opposed to older children and nostalgic adults.  It was, predictably, dreadful.

 

Hopefully, at the end of his life, Anderson was at least aware of the great affection that the British public had for him and his TV shows and of how his work had become stamped on the DNA of modern popular culture.  The other year, for example, there wasn’t one, but two different adverts running on British TV that used characters from Thunderbirds (one of whom being the Tracy family’s backroom boffin Brains, who always looked like Elvis Costello during his Oliver’s Army phase).  Also, Nick Park paid tribute to Anderson in the opening scene of Wallace and Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, with his titular heroes going to the seats of their pest-control vehicle via a series of chutes, pulleys and lifts, just as the Tracy brothers did when entering the cockpits of the International Rescue vehicles, and accompanied by some rousing Barry Gray-esque music.  Even Wallace and Gromit’s garden gnomes parted before the pathway of their van, just as the palm trees on Tracy Island used to do when Thunderbird 2 rumbled into view.

 

But the greatest Anderson tribute of all may be Team America – World Police, the scabrous 2004 puppet movie from Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the men behind South Park.  The heroes of Team America might’ve been a bunch of gung-ho terrorist-blasting commandoes rather than the mannerly and ultra-decent Tracy family, and the villain might have been Kim Jong-Il rather than the Hood, but the film was basically a grown-up version of Thunderbirds.  I just hope Gerry Anderson managed to see beyond the blood, the vomit, the swearing and the graphic puppet-copulation scenes, got the joke and appreciated the fondness that Parker and Stone obviously had for the source material.

 

(c) Paramount

 

 

Whatever happened to kids’ Euro-telly?

British politics in the last few months has seen a hardening of attitudes towards Europe.  Only half a dozen years ago, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was regarded as a weirdo minority faction populated by Daily Mail readers that had only two policies, getting Britain out of the European Union and bringing back hanging.  Correspondingly, it seemed to have only two members that anyone had heard of, tanned former Tory MP and egomaniac Robert Kilroy-Silk and aging glamour-puss actress Joan Collins.

 

(These days Joan Collins is best remembered for playing villainess Alexis Colby in the overwrought 1980s soap opera Dynasty.  But personally, I’ll always cherish her appearances in a string of low-budget British horror and exploitation films that she made in the early 1970s – Tales from the Crypt, Fear in the Night, I Don’t Want to be Born and Revenge, in which she had a fight with James Booth meagrely but spectacularly clad in her underwear – though no doubt Joanie herself would rather forget this part of her CV.)

 

Now, under the leadership of Nigel Farage, a figure more media-savvy but no less ridiculous than Kilroy-Silk, UKIP regularly shows more support in opinion polls than the hapless Liberal Democrats and can claim to be Britain’s third-most popular party.

 

In addition, David Cameron’s Conservative Party is riddled with ‘Euro-sceptic’ MPs who are as keen for Britain to head for the EU’s exit door as UKIP is.  Small wonder that many political and economic commentators are now pondering what the consequences of a Britain-free EU might be: http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21567940-british-exit-european-union-looks-increasingly-possible-it-would-be-reckless.

 

The irony is that in terms of social expectations and cultural tastes, Britons more closely resemble their fellow Europeans than ever.  In fact, it’s been 40 years since Britain joined the European Union, or the European Economic Community (EEC) as it was then.  It’d be wrong, however, to believe that 1973 was when Britons got their first exposure to Europe’s continental culture and from then on they gradually evolved into a nation of expresso-drinkers, pasta-eaters and watchers of TV crime shows featuring Danish lady detectives in chunky jumpers.  Indeed, 40 years ago, one area of British life had already been culturally colonised by the Continent.  That area was children’s television.

 

In my boyhood, in the 1970s, the BBC felt obliged not only to broadcast juvenile programmes from 4.00 to 5.45 PM, to entertain kids after they’d arrived home from school, but also during the mornings of school-holiday periods.  The morning schedules of the seemingly-endless summer holidays in particular were a challenge for the BBC to fill with kiddie-related material.  As a result, the channel had to regularly raid its archives for old, dubbed children’s shows from France, Germany and elsewhere and broadcast them.

 

Let’s begin with my least favourite.  Growing up on a Northern Irish farm where there weren’t many neighbours to mix with, I depended for company during the summer holidays on the elderly couple who lived a few hundred yards along the road from our farmhouse – more precisely, I depended on their two granddaughters, who were around my age and usually came to spend part of the summer with them.  Aged seven or eight years old, the neighbours’ granddaughters were a pair of Tomboys who were dependable for games of cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians and other activities that normal ‘girlie-girls’ didn’t like playing.  However, they had one weakness, a fondness for a show called White Horses.  This was a co-production between German and Yugoslavian TV that’d been made back in 1965 but that rarely seemed to be off the BBC’s children’s holiday schedules in the early-to-mid-1970s.   It followed the adventures of a girl from Belgrade, Julia, who was staying on her uncle’s horse ranch.  Populating the farm were handsome white steeds that made girls only slightly too old for My Little Pony swoon with adoration.

 

As a boy, and not a fan of horses (white or otherwise), I thought this was the dumbest programme ever and it constantly annoyed me that on those summer mornings the games of cops and robbers and cowboys and Indians would suddenly stop and my two playmates would run indoors to sit goggle-eyed in front of their television the moment White Horses came on.  I have to say, though, that while I generally remember other kids’ TV programmes from then but not the details of individual episodes, two episodes of White Horses remain etched on my mind.  In one episode Julia found a metallic, saucer-shaped object on the grounds of the farm and carried it to her uncle, who immediately screamed, “It’s a mine!” and flung it away as far as he could – at which point it exploded.  In the other episode, the farm’s dog was seen frothing at the mouth and in the ensuing pandemonium all the ranch-hands tore around on (white) horseback, trying to hunt the rabid beast down.  Come to think of it, for a silly girls’ show, White Horses was actually quite dark.  It left me with the conviction that the European continent was riddled with unexploded World War II landmines and overrun with rabid mammals.  I’m sure Nigel Farage would’ve approved.

 

One thing that really annoyed me about White Horses was the sickly theme song.  This wasn’t a feature of the original German-Yugoslavian show but had been recorded by the Dublin singer Jackie Lee and stuck onto the dubbed BBC version.  The lyrics went:

 

On my horses let me ride away, to my world of dreams so far away, let me run, to the sun, to a world my heart can understand, it’s a gentle warm and wonderland, faraway, stars away, where the clouds are made of candyfloss, as the day is born, when the stars are gone, we’ll race to meet the dawn…

 

Even at the age of seven or eight, I found the song so asinine that I felt a Pavlovian urge to barf every time I heard it issuing from a TV set.  Despite my intense dislike for it, however, the song is now regarded as a kitsch classic and has been covered many times, usually by ‘knowing’ indie-pop bands like Kitchens of Distinction and the Trashcan Sinatras.  Even Catatonia’s Cerys Matthews has had a go at singing it.  Here, if you can stomach it, is the original version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iR6z8GUywyc

 

(c) Philips

 

Now if you wanted a Euro-kids’ TV show with a seriously bad-ass theme song, you didn’t have to look any further than The Flashing Blade, a historical swashbuckler that’d been made under the title Le Chevalier Tempete by France’s Office de Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (ORTF) in 1967.  Set in the early 17th century, during the War of Mantuan Succession between France and Spain, the show’s theme song was accompanied by footage at the start of each episode showing the principals tearing manically across a battlefield on horseback – their manic-ness, of course, increased by the fact that the film was grossly speeded up.  The singer implored:

 

You’ve got to fight for what you want, and all that you believe, it’s right to fight for what we want, to live the way we please, as long as we have done our best, then no one can do more, and life and love and happiness, are well worth fighting for.

 

Here’s the show’s blood-stirring opening on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-ZEDNkZ2L4.

 

Unlike White Horses, I don’t remember much about the story of The Flashing Blade, except that to my impressionable mind it was very like The Three Musketeers.  For some reason, however, I’ve never forgotten a scene where two characters – one presumably villainous because he sported a pointed beard – were playing chess and the villain made a comment about the uselessness of pawns with regard to the outcome of the game.  The other player immediately came back with an observation along the lines of: “Even the smallest pebble can shatter the most beautiful of mirrors.”  This struck my seven-year-old self as being rather profound.  Obi-Wan Kenobi should’ve said that to Luke Skywalker before he tackled the Death Star.

 

Also originating with France’s ORTF in 1967 was Les Chevaliers du Ciel, which ran on Gallic television for the next three years.  By the time it turned up in anglicised form on British TV it’d been retitled The Aeronauts and given a new, hard-rockin’ – by BBC standards – English-language theme song by Canadian Rick Jones.  (As well as being a singer, Jones was a BBC children’s show presenter.  Balding, bearded and disturbingly intense-looking, he hosted Fingerbobs, which must’ve featured the cheapest and most low-fi puppets in the history of television.)  His Aeronauts song went:

 

Better than best, boys, we pass every test, you’re ahead of the rest, when those crime-fighting Aeronauts are cutting those bounds, in a fury of sound, you’re a loser all round, against the crook-catching Aeronauts, so play in the wind, boys, you better give in, because your troubles begin when those two daring aeronauts fly!

 

I can’t find the opening sequence for this one, only the song itself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o9QbouM44t4&feature=related

 

Once again, though I remember the theme music well, I can’t recall much of what went on in the show’s storylines.  Maybe with The Aeronauts that was just as well, since the show was about two hunky young guys called Ernest and Michel who were pilots in the French Air Force.  As such, they might’ve spent the episodes bombing la merde out of insurgents in North Africa or Greenpeace activists in the South Pacific.

 

I’ve spoken ironically about the music on The Flashing Blade and The Aeronauts, but there’s no disputing the fact that the theme tune of Belle and Sebastian – the Anglicised version of Belle et Sebastien, which ran on French television from 1965 to 1970 and was based on the novel by Cecile Aubrey about a boy and his big Pyrenean mountain dog – had a genuine haunting quality.  It’s fitting that wistful Glaswegian indie-pop band Belle & Sebastian took their name from this show.  And apparently its theme song was covered by New Zealand singer-songwriter Bic Runga on an album only a year ago.   Here’s the original version: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=myEnMERmbJg.

 

(c) Philips

 

There are a number of things I remember about Belle and Sebastian, apart from its music and its obvious star, the hefty canine Belle.  I remember being awed by the sheer, bleak mountain landscapes that formed its backdrop – it’d been filmed around the village of Belvedere in the Alpes-Maritimes.  And indeed, years later, when I finally saw the Alps for real, the first association I made in my head was with that old French kids’ TV show.

 

I also remember how the voices in Belle and Sebastian puzzled me.  Not being aware of dubbing procedures or the fact that the BBC employed a small group of actors to do the English dialogue for these imported shows, I couldn’t figure out at the time why the adults in Belle and Sebastian sounded exactly like the adults in White Horses.  Incidentally, Sebastian in the show was played by Medhi el Glaoui, who was Cecile Audrey’s son.  Little Medhi’s father was Moroccan and indeed his grandfather had been the pasha of Marrakech.

 

However, musically, the best Euro-kids’ programme of all was surely The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe.  Robinson Crusoe was of course a British cultural property, but this children’s drama version of the story had been made in 1964 by France’s Franco London Films (FLF) and starred Austrian actor Robert Hoffman in the title role.  The BBC got its hands on it, dubbed it and broadcast it regularly during its children’s TV schedules from the mid-1960s to the late 1970s.

 

The BBC added a lovely, mock-classical score composed by Robert Mellin and P. Reverberi, which managed to be both stirring and slightly desolate – I’ve read somewhere that the spiralling opening chords were meant to represent the breakers striking the beach of Crusoe’s desert island.  It doesn’t surprise me that when electronica band The Orbital put together 19 of their favourite tracks in 2002 for the Back to Mine compilation series, they decided to close their compilation with this tune: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvuhlrKikOc.

 

(c) DECCA

 

To be fair to The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, a lot more of the show has remained with me over the years than just its theme music.  For a long time, Hoffman’s youthful features formed my image of how the character should look – so that when I saw other versions of the story later in the 1970s, such as a BBC adaptation with Stanley Baker and a ‘politically correct’ movie adaptation called Man Friday with Richard Harris and Richard Roundtree, I couldn’t accept them.  The series took liberties with Daniel Dafoe’s novel, though.  For example, it climaxed with a shipload of pirates invading Crusoe’s island.  At which point, Man Friday took off and hid in the island’s jungle, and started killing the pirates off one by one like the title character in the Predator movies.

 

Finally, for pure weirdness, you couldn’t beat The Singing Ringing Tree, which had started life as a film made by an East German studio, Das Singende Klingende Baumchen.  The BBC duly chopped it into TV-serial form.  Even by the standards of the other Euro-kids’ shows I saw at the time, The Singing Ringing Tree was particularly venerable, dating back to 1957.  It lingers in my mind because, although it was ostensibly a fairy tale, it spooked the hell out of me.

 

With characters including an evil dwarf, a humanoid bear creature, who was actually a prince transformed by a magic spell, and a gigantic goldfish – I still can’t figure what the goldfish was about – the series resembled a Brothers Grimm story directed by David Lynch.  Reviewers, at least those who took the show seriously, noted an influence of German expressionism on how it looked and an influence of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in particular.  To my seven-year-old sensibilities, the fate suffered by the dwarf at the end was especially traumatising.  He was last seen swooping around in the air and then plunging through the thin-crusted ground and vanishing in a belch of volcanic, sulphurous smoke.

 

If this makes me sound wimpish, I should point out that I wasn’t alone in being scared by the show.  The comedian and impersonator Paul Whitehouse said of The Singing Ringing Tree that it used to make him ‘pee his pants’ when he was a kid.  Perhaps as a way of exorcism, Whitehouse staged a spoof of it on his popular comedy programme The Fast Show called The Singing Ringing Binging Plinging Tinging Plinking Plonking Boinging Tree with, somewhat inevitably, the ubiquitous Warwick Davies in the role of the dwarf:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7XqMF5ou7hE. Meanwhile, here’s a bit from the original show, involving that bizarre Moby Dick-sized goldfish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAF3fWo8aoM

 

And there ends my round-up of kids’ Euro-telly – a set of old, cheap and badly-dubbed TV shows that nonetheless converted me into a good little European, even though at the time I thought Brussels was something you were force-fed at Christmas rather than the hub of one of the world’s most important political and trading alliances.

 

And speaking of Christmas…  As it’s the festive season and as I began this entry with a mention of Joan Collins – here’s that segment from 1972’s Tales from the Crypt in which poor Joanie gets strangled by Santa Claus: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=16Xn6B4_srI.  Enjoy!

 

Cycle of violence: film review / Looper

(c) TriStar

 

Let’s begin this review brutally.  As a member of one particular category of film, Looper finishes last.  That category is the Bruce-Willis-as-a-tragic-time-travelling-tough-guy category, which contains precisely two films, this and Terry Gilliam’s majestic 12 Monkeys.  And with all respect to Looper’s writer-director Rian Johnson, his new movie isn’t as good as 12 Monkeys.  But then, what is?

 

On its own terms, though, Looper is pretty good and as a basic premise it has a killer idea.  The year is 2044, when the mob employs a caste of hitmen known as Loopers to dispose of its rivals.  The twist is that the mob is operating another 30 years in the future, in 2074, when time travel has been invented – and by making (illegal) use of time-travel technology, the mob can send its victims back to 2044 to be executed by the Loopers, thereby erasing them from 2074 and leaving not a single incriminating trace of them.

 

To keep a rein on the Loopers, 30 years in its own past, the mob has also sent back in time a crime-boss called Abe (Jeff Daniels).  Dividing his time between making wry comments that draw on his knowledge of things to come – “Why the f*** France?” he demands when he finds out his prize Looper Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has been learning French; “I’m from the future.  Go to China.” – and smashing people’s hands to a pulp with a hammer, Abe manages to be both wise and psychotic and he sports a grizzled beard that makes him look like Kris Kristofferson gone to the Dark Side.  I’ve mainly seen Daniels in amiable-goofball roles and I have to say he is something of a revelation here.

 

The only loose ends in the mob’s killing operations are the Loopers themselves, who’ll still be around in 2074, 30 years older and dangerously knowledgeable about what’s been going on.  So the mob sends them back in time too, to be executed by their younger selves.  Thus, each Looper in 2044 faces a day when his older self will pop out of the time continuum – at which point he is expected to kill him (or himself), take the large sum of money that’s strapped to his (own) body, consider his contract ended and go off and enjoy life for the next 30 years until time is called, so to speak.  The repercussions are dire for any Looper who fails to ‘close the loop’, as it’s described, and lets his old self run free in 2044.  This is graphically illustrated early on in the film when Abe and his cohorts slowly torture a Looper who didn’t have the courage to close his loop – the same mutilations gradually and horribly appearing on the body of his 30-year-older fugitive self.

 

Paid generously for his work, Gordon-Levitt’s Joe wallows in a hedonistic mire of drugs, clubs, fast cars and gorgeous women.  That is, until the inevitable moment comes when his older version materialises out of thin air, for execution.  Gordon-Levitt flubs the execution, not because he’s weak-willed but because his older self, played by Bruce Willis, is wilier and tougher than he is, manages to overpower him and escapes.  He then finds himself in an awkward situation.  He has to locate Bruce-on-the-loose and complete the job before Abe and the other Loopers get their hands on both of them.

 

Willis, meanwhile, is on a mission.  He’s witnessed the death of a loved one in 2074 and is determined to prevent that happening by carrying out some serious alterations to the time-stream in 2044.  Willis’s time-meddling involves finding a woman called Sara (Emily Blunt) and her mysterious young son Cid (Pierce Gagnon), although Gordon-Levitt gets to them first.  Realising that Willis has murder on his mind, he becomes their reluctant protector – although that reluctance fades as he befriends little Cid and begins to fall for Sara.

 

The film isn’t perfect.  There’s a plot twist with a secondary character that also involves a massive coincidence and this twist could’ve been excised from the script for the sake of greater believability.  Also, from what we see of 2074 – some bleak news footage watched by Willis on TV just before the villains arrive and send him on a one-way trip back in time – society then looks so apocalyptically messy that we wonder why the mob needs to be neat and tidy about disposing of its enemies.

 

Looper side-steps too that old time-travel paradox: “What’d happen if you travelled back in time to before you were born and shot your father?  So that you wouldn’t be born, wouldn’t travel back in time and wouldn’t shoot your father?”  Though to be fair, a lot of other time-travel movies have ducked the same issue, including the first three in the Terminator series starring Willis’s old action-movie mate, Ah-nuld.  And there’s a sequence late in the film where events become uncomfortably Terminator-like.  It ties up a major plot-strand, admittedly, but I wish Rian Johnson had tied it up with more ingenuity than by simply relying on a lot of heavy-duty gunfire.

 

Where Looper really works, though, is its treatment of the relationship between Gordon-Levitt and Willis – or the lack of one.  The obvious thing would’ve been to turn it into a high-concept buddy movie where the two characters, younger and older versions of the same man, are thrown together, bicker, form a grudging partnership, win each other’s respect and finally bond in a weird son-father way.  (The tagline could’ve been: He took self-help to a new level!)  However, Johnson keeps the interplay between them to a minimum and keeps them as adversaries.  For most of the film, in fact, Gordon-Levitt’s attitude towards his older self resembles that of a boozy, chain-smoking, pill-popping teenager warned that he’s wrecking his health later on in life.  Just as the teenager doesn’t care, because he’d rather be dead than be middle-aged, Gordon-Levitt has no sympathy with Willis and his traumas in 2074 – he just wants to take the big pay-off and enjoy the next 30 years of his life.  And though we feel sorry for Willis and understand why he regards Gordon-Levitt as an immature prat, when we see what crimes he’s prepared to commit to change the future, we end up rooting for Gordon-Levitt to stop him.

 

Both actors do well in their roles, or their role – Gordon-Levitt had prosthetic make-up added to make him more Willis-like – even if you never quite succumb to the illusion that you’re watching one person rather than two.  (At one point Johnson provides a montage of the 30 years between 2044 and 2074, where an older Gordon-Levitt gives way to a younger Willis.  Was it my imagination, or in my first glimpse of Willis here did I see him sporting a mad truncated hairstyle exactly like the one Gary Oldman had in another Willis sci-fi epic, The Fifth Element?)

 

Looper is, for the most part, a movie that’ll restore a little of your faith in Hollywood.  Like Duncan Jones’ 2011 sci-fi actioner Source Code, it manages to be both mind-bending and entertaining and it doesn’t feel the need to opt for the brainless spectacle of blockbusting big-budget garbage like the Transformers movies.  It’s definitely a case of mind over matter – and imagination over money.

 

Sir Patrick Moore: 1923 – 2012

 

(c) BBC

 

It was appropriate that the astronomer Sir Patrick Moore, who died six days ago, dedicated his life to surveying the universe.  For anyone who grew up accustomed to the monthly appearances of his astronomy-themed TV show The Sky at Night on late-evening BBC television – indeed, its opening music, At the Castle Gate composed by Jean Sibelius, rang out of one’s TV set with a lunar-cycle regularity – Moore seemed as old as the universe.

 

He wasn’t quite so aged, of course, but in television terms he was astonishingly venerable.  The Sky at Night, with Moore at the helm, was first broadcast on April 27th, 1957, five months before the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 into an elliptical low-earth orbit.  That meant Moore was presenting the show while Jack Webb was still playing Joe Friday in Dragnet and Phil Silvers was still performing as Sergeant Bilko.  Quatermass II, the second of Nigel Kneale’s seminal 1950s sci-fi horror dramas featuring the rocket scientist Professor Bernard Quatermass, had aired but not the third one, Quatermass and the Pit.  He was on TV two years before The Twilight Zone, a show indelibly linked in most people’s minds with black-and-white 1950s telly.  He was also broadcasting two years before Rawhide, three years before Coronation Street and five years before Doctor Who.

 

Moore continued to front The Sky at Night right up until its December 2012 episode, which was broadcast just before his death.  Only once did he miss presenting an episode of it, in July 2004, when he almost died from salmonellosis after eating an infected goose egg.  During that time, Moore’s guests on the show included Wernher von Braun, Arthur C. Clarke, Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan and Sir Bernard Lovell, the radio astronomer and director of Jodrell Bank Observatory who died very recently himself.  (Lovell claimed that during the Cold War the Soviets had tried to kill him with radiation poisoning.  It’s said too that Nigel Kneale was sufficiently inspired by him to give his fictional scientist-hero Quatermass the same first name, Bernard.)  Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin also turned up on The Sky at Night and it was a point of pride with Moore that he was the only person in history to have met Neil Armstrong, Yuri Gagarin and Orville Wright.

 

But he was far more than a TV-presenting head.  As an astronomer, he remained stubbornly amateur and unqualified, having turned down the offer of an academic grant and the opportunity to study at Cambridge University following World War II.  Nonetheless, he was only amateur astronomer ever to be granted membership of the International Astronomical Union.  The moon was his special subject and he was credited with discovering the Marie Orientale, the Eastern Sea, though Moore later said the German astronomer Julius Heinrich Franz had found it first.  He came up with the term ‘transient lunar phenomenon’ (TLP) to describe the mysterious light and colour changes that briefly occur on patches of the moon’s surface.  In the middle of the Cold War, the Soviets took a shine to Moore and invited him over to meet Gagarin – they obviously preferred him to Sir Bernard Lovell – and he was also the first Western astronomer to see photographs taken by the Soviet Luna 3 probe in 1959, which allowed the moon’s far side to be mapped for the first time.

 

It hardly got mentioned in the obituaries this week, but Moore was also a writer of fiction – more precisely, of juvenile science fiction.  He wrote several series of rip-roaring sci-fi children’s books that featured heroic (and obviously, scientific) teenage characters with names like Gregory Quest (1955-1956), Maurice Gray (1955-1959), Robin North (1960-1964) and Scott Saunders (1977-1979).  Their titles conjure up images of a simpler and more optimistic sci-fi era: Quest of the Spaceways, Captives of the Moon, Spy in Space, The Terror Star and so on.  His writing earned him an entry in the online Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction: http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/moore_patrick

 

Eccentric to say the least – as well as astronomy and writing children’s science fiction, his enthusiasms included cricket, playing the xylophone, monocle-wearing and chess (he carried a pocket-sized chess set with him at all times) – his demeanour on The Sky at Night was that of a very old-style and somewhat intimidating school teacher.  His urgent manner and the way his body barely seemed to fit into its tightly-buttoned suit gave him an aura of impatience and cantankerousness, even when he wasn’t feeling tetchy.  However, given the technical problems he had to deal with on The Sky at Night, especially the dreadful British weather that spoiled many a view of a meteor shower, a passing comet or a lunar eclipse, any tetchiness was justified.  There was also a moment during a live TV commentary about the Luna 4 probe when he opened his mouth to speak and a huge fly buzzed into it.  Old pro that he was, Moore kept talking to the camera.  As he remarked later, the experience wasn’t pleasant for him, but it was worse for the fly.

 

The British public, even the many who didn’t know or care anything about astronomy, took him to their hearts as a lovable eccentric, though if you were within hearing range of him when he started expounding his political views, he might have seemed less lovable.  In his autobiography, published in 2003, he readily described his politics as being to the right of Attila the Hun’s and he professed to taking a dim view of immigrants, homosexuals and any women with ideas above their station.  He was never short of a uncomplimentary word to say about the Germans – the ‘Krauts’ – though as his fiancé Lorna, who’d served during World War II as an ambulance driver, was killed by a German bomb that struck her vehicle in 1943, he might be excused that particular belligerence.  Inevitably, the New Statesman has already been debating whether we should be mourning the death of someone with Moore’s political outlook: http://www.newstatesman.com/martin-robbins/2012/12/sir-patrick-moore-great-and-bad-man.

 

But he wasn’t wholly blimpish.  He had a loathing for fox-hunting and the aristocratic types who indulged in it – ‘filthy people’, he called them once.  (An animal lover, he gave support to various animal charities and when he died at his home the other day, it was in the company of his beloved cat Ptolemy.)  He also opposed capital punishment and disliked George W. Bush because of the Iraq War.  He spent three years serving as director of the Armagh Planetarium in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, but was glad to leave the province because he was dismayed by the anti-Catholic prejudice he saw there.

 

Reactionary curmudgeon he may have been, but Moore always seemed popular with the younger and more right-on members of Britain’s comedy set.  During the 1970s he made so many guest appearances in The Goodies, a show best described as the anarchic kid-brother to Monty Python’s Flying Circus, that he seemed almost a semi-regular on it.  In one episode of The Goodies, Animals, there was a spoof nature documentary that studied the BBC’s science-programme presenters as if they were exotic species of wildlife.  Moore was seen perched up a tree with a telescope and was described “a creature perfectly adapted to living at night… so specialised that it’s almost lost the use of its neglected eye”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c4nq5i64xSE.

 

He appeared in a radio instalment of Douglas Adams’ celebrated The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and was good mates with impersonator Jon Culshaw, who like all British impersonators in the last half-century had honed his own impersonation of Moore to perfection.  When Culshaw gave Moore a prank phone call on his show Dead Ringers, pretending to be Doctor Who and asking for advice on where to land on Mars, Moore wasn’t in the least bit ruffled and gave him some suggestions:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vMOl_Jh8O_E.  He was a guest too on Paul Merton’s name-your-pet-hates show Room 101 where, politically incorrect as ever, one of the things he placed in Room 101 were ‘women newsreaders’.  Merton ended the programme with a clip showing Culshaw and a bemused-looking Moore attempting to play the Prodigy song Firestarter on a pair of xylophones: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JH9L6VonhQc.

 

Though Moore described all modern pop and rock music as ‘indescribably awful’, he struck up a friendship with Queen guitarist Brian May, who long before had abandoned his studies for a PhD at the Imperial College Department of Physics and Mathematics to join Freddie Mercury and co (though he did co-author two research papers, Mgl Emission in the Night Sky Spectrum and An Investigation of the Motion of Zodiacal Dust Particles [Part 1], in 1972 and 1973).  I was never much of a Queen fan, at least, not after News of the World in 1977, but I liked how after Mercury’s death in 1991 May went back to his studies and completed his PhD in astrophysics, at Moore’s urging.  Given Moore’s uncharitable opinion of rock music, he probably assumed May was on his way to getting a proper job at last: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=61z0uatXU1k.

 

Meanwhile, Alex James – bassist with legendary 1990s Britpop band Blur, columnist, cheesemaker and ‘artist in residence’ at the Astrophysics Department of the University of Oxford – was such a Moore fan that he went and interviewed him for the Idler magazine in 2001.  The end result was, predictably, a bit surreal: http://alexjamesonline.tripod.com/stargeezers.html.

 

As for myself, I recall being seven or eight years old and managing to stay up late a couple of times to see Moore on The Sky at Night.  Back then I was still a little scared of the dark.  If I was no longer scared of the dark in my bedroom, I certainly felt uneasy at night when I stepped out of the house.  I lived in a rural part of Northern Ireland, where there were few streetlights and there were a lot of ghost stories doing the rounds.  But then I saw Moore on television extolling the wonders of the night-sky and his gruff enthusiasm was infectious.  After that, when I was outside, I only had to look upwards – at least, when the weather conditions allowed me to see anything – and there’d be enough stuff up there to take my mind off what might be lurking in the dark at ground level.  I can still remember, for instance, my excitement the first time I saw a meteor.  And generally, the rural Irish sky on a cloudless night was a spectacular sight.

 

So thanks for the coping strategy, Sir Patrick.

 

Rachid against the machine

 

In the past fortnight I have noticed two opinion pieces in the British media concerning the Arab Uprising.  Incidentally, the ‘Arab Uprising’ seems to have become the BBC’s new term for describing what had formerly been called the ‘Arab Spring’.  Presumably this is because the political and economic sunshine in North Africa and the Middle East has not been summery, or even particularly spring-like, since events in Tunisia kick-started the thing nearly two years ago.

 

One was by Gerald Warner, who is described in his now-defunct Daily Telegraph blog as ‘an author, broadcaster, columnist and polemical commentator’.  Some, especially those who have to grit their teeth whilst wading through his columns in the Scotland on Sunday every week, would translate ‘polemical commentator’ as ‘right-wing tosser’.  In his December 2nd column in the SoS, he used recent events in Egypt to pour scorn on liberals who’d dared to believe that the Arab Spring / Uprising would produce anything other than chaos, bloodshed and hardline Islamic oppression: “Old Middle Eastern hands could have told the starry-eyed Guardianistas that democracy on the Nile does not produce the same outcome as on the banks of the Thames.”

 

(http://www.scotsman.com/scotland-on-sunday/opinion/comment/gerald-warner-after-the-frenzy-of-the-arab-spring-comes-the-harsh-islamic-winter-1-2671175)

 

The other piece was authored by Mehdi Hasan, a journalist involved with the Guardian, New Statesman, Al-Jazeera Television and the UK edition of the Huffington Post.  One of Warner’s despised Guardianistas, Hasan is something of a punch-bag these days for Britain’s right-wing commentators – only rarely, it seems, does the Spectator columnist Rod Liddle write the name ‘Mehdi Hasan’ without preceding it with the words ‘the idiotic’.  A Hasan-penned article appeared in the New Statesman on November 29th, wherein he conceded that “recent events in Egypt don’t help those of us who desperately want to be optimistic about the future of the region”.  Nonetheless, he declared defiantly: “But do you know who I trust? The Egyptians. And the Bahrainis. And the Jordanians. And the Syrians. Whatever the season, spring or winter, they will have their freedom.”

 

(http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2012/11/ignore-neocons-i-refuse-give-on-egypt-or-arab-spring)

 

Now in my entire life I have never agreed with a single word that Gerald Warner has written, and if I ever did I would probably rush to the nearest clinic to check if I was suffering from the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.  I find it particularly ironic that Warner should mouth off about the horrors of Sharia law, considering that in the past he’s excused the murderous regimes of Franco and Pinochet on the grounds that because both fascist dictators were devout Roman Catholics (as he is) they couldn’t have been that bad.  The moral code Warner would like us all to live under might not go as far as advocating the death penalty for the sin of apostasy, but it certainly wouldn’t be a barrel of laughs either – I imagine it would be as much fun as living in Eamon de Valera’s Irish Free State circa 1935.  Still, the recent antics of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi have made my heart sink.  Morsi seems to have split his country down the middle with a giant political chisel in his haste to approve an ambiguously-worded constitution that would allow Islamists to make life miserable for Coptics, Sufis, pesky liberals and uppity women.

 

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/09/egypt-hopes-betrayed-mohamed-morsi)

 

Where does that leave the other country at the forefront of the Arab Spring (sorry, Uprising), Tunisia?  By a coincidence, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, Tunisia’s supposedly moderate Islamist party and the biggest player in its post-revolution government, also turned up in the British media lately.  He was interviewed in the Guardian last week by the firebrand (though on this occasion noticeably deferential) left-wing journalist Seumas Milne.  Interestingly, Ghannouchi identified the ‘Scandinavian’ model as the one he was most eager for Tunisia to follow.  But don’t worry, all you devout Salafists out there, he wasn’t talking about Swedish permissiveness or Danish pornography (‘hot love and cold people’, as the saying used to go), but the Scandinavian economic and social model, where more than a little of capitalist society’s profits goes to a creating a decent safety net for the less well-off.  Folk in hard-pressed parts of Tunisia like Siliana and Sidi Bouzid would tell Ghannouchi that there’s a hell of a long way to go before the economic and social climate there is anywhere near as comfortable as it is in Scandinavia.

 

(http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/video/2012/dec/04/rachid-ghannouchi-scandinavian-economic-model-tunisia-video)

 

Meanwhile, it’s disappointing that Seumas Milne, whose past articles in the Guardian have included The Problem with Unions is they’re not Strong Enough, Five Reasons Public Service Workers are Right to Strike, The Return of Anti-Union Propaganda, The Right to Strike is being Threatened by the Courts, An Assault on Unions is an Attack on Democracy Itself, and A Generation on, the Miners’ Strike can Speak to our Time, didn’t ask Ghannouchi about why his government has fallen out so badly with his country’s trade union organisation, the Union Géneralé Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).

 

The UGTT has been vitriolic about the Tunisian government and Ennahdha in particular.  It blames the country’s political leaders for the violent police handling of protestors, including trade unionists, who were demonstrating about the lack of jobs in the town of Siliana in late November and early December.  It also blames them for a recent assault on trade unionists in Tunis while they commemorated the assassination of UGTT founder Farhat Hached (killed in 1952 by La Main Rouge, a French paramilitary group seeking to prevent Tunisian independence).  The attackers were allegedly members of the League for the Protection of the Revolution, a faction supporting Ennahdha that had already been accused of responsibility for the death of opposition party Nida Tounes activist Lofti Naqdh back in October.

 

In fact, so incensed was the UGTT that it had planned a general strike in Tunisia today, December 13th, though the strike was called off yesterday after last-minute negotiations between it and the government.  As yet, I haven’t seen any details of what was agreed.  (Knowing the keen sense of rivalry that Tunisians have with the Egyptians, I can’t help suspecting that the UGTT and the government agreed to compromise only because they didn’t want Tunisia to look as hopeless as Egypt looks at the moment.)

 

Ghannouchi, and Ennahdha generally, must be feeling lonely at the top these days.  Not only have they earned the ire of the UGTT, but the ultra-religious Salafists – a group they’d spent the last year trying to be civil towards – have been saying beastly things about them too, most notably Nasreddine Aloui, the Salafist imam of Ennour Mosque. This followed trouble in late October in Tunis’s Manouba district, which resulted in two Salafists being shot dead during a confrontation at a local police station.  Interviewed on a live TV show, Aloui called for a jihad against Ennahdha, whom he denounced as puppets of the US government.  He even waved a kafin (a burial shroud) in the air while he called on young Salafists to sacrifice themselves in the upcoming war on Ennahdha.  Predictably, his call-to-arms didn’t impress government minister Samir Dilou, who happened to be appearing on the show at the same time.

 

(http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/11/02/imam-incites-salafist-youth-to-fight-ennahdha-on-live-television/)

 

Hindsight is both a wonderful and a worthless thing.  However, Ennahdha could have done things better in the year or so since it became the main party of power.  It could have paid less attention to political wrangling and bickering and focused more on the economy, which many would argue was the real driver for the revolution.  Poor folk – including many unemployed young men – living in the country’s interior rebelled against the old Ben Ali regime because they faced shockingly grim economic prospects.  Richer folk living along the Mediterranean coast rebelled because the Mafia-like way in which the country was run – if you had a business, Ben Ali’s gruesome in-laws, the Trabelsi clan, invariably came calling looking for a cut of your profits – whittled away the money you already had and deterred entrepreneurs from setting up new operations and generating new money.

 

At the same time, Ennahdha was over-lenient with the Salafists, whose behaviour gave outsiders the impression that the country was unstable, discouraging tourists from visiting and making potential foreign investors think twice about putting money in it.  Some viewed the appeasement of the Salafists as being part of a secret, sinister plot by Ennahdha to gradually move Tunisia towards being a hardline, Sharia-controlled state, and I’m sure Ennahdha politicians, as Islamists, would like to see Tunisians being a bit more Islamic than many of them are at the moment.  But I’m inclined to think this was more down to political naiveté and inexperience.  They tried to be reasonable towards the Salafists, assuming that they’d be reasonable back.  This didn’t happen.  The Salafists seemed to believe that having the right to express their opinions and to protest peacefully also give them the right to attack TV stations, galleries, bars and embassies.  And as Nasreddine Aloui’s TV outburst showed, they didn’t take it well when, finally, the authorities ran out of patience and began to meet force with force.

 

Wiser heads will say that a revolution is never an event and always a process.  One Tunisian acquaintance of mine, who’d been schooled in France and therefore knew all about the French Revolution (which is credited as lasting a decade, and led to Napoleon, the Bourbon Restoration, the July Monarchy and two more revolutions in 1830 and 1848), told me: “We will set up a new government…  And if they are no good, we will throw them out and set up another government…  And if they are no good, we will throw them out too…”  Unfortunately, this fact has not been appreciated by some other Tunisians, who expected their living standards to rise the morning after Ben Ali and the Trabelsis had fled.

 

It certainly wasn’t appreciated in the West, where the modern news media is obsessed with catering for short TV-conditioned attention spans.  Every news item becomes a narrative, invested with a quick, easy-to-digest structure that has a beginning, middle and end, and receives a title as catchy and glib as a politician’s sound-bite.  Thus, what happened in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 became the ‘Arab Spring’ – an event, not the first stage of what was likely to be a long, gruelling and torturous process.  Liberal Western commentators were only too happy to hail it as the day that Arab societies shook off their oppressors and turned into democracy-loving, equal-rights-for-everybody Shangri-Las.  And when this didn’t happen, right-wing Western commentators were only too happy to pronounce the whole thing a catastrophic failure that would usher in a new Dark Ages to North Africa and the Middle East.  A lot of people would be advised to hunker down, study their history books and exhibit a little patience.

 

What happens next in Tunisia?  Elections are supposedly due next year and it’s conceivable that Ennahdha could lose power.  If they do, will they – and their fans in the League for the Protection of the Revolution – accept defeat gracefully?  Or will there be a massive schism and a potentially destructive stand-off like what’s happening in Egypt just now?  I think there are grounds for optimism, because Tunisia isn’t Egypt (and despite what the narrative-obsessed Western media has told people, the Tunisian Revolution is a very different beast from the Egyptian one).  Tunisians are better educated, their country (thanks to the myriad outside influences that have figured in its history) has always seemed more outward-looking and the Tunisian army – which would have a major role to play in solving a constitutional crisis – has, until now at least, behaved with integrity.

 

One thing is for sure.  The West should get over the idea that it’s sensible to support the likes of Ben Ali, Mubarak or even (the rehabilitated) Colonel Gaddafi on the grounds that “Okay, he’s a bastard, but at least he’s our bastard.”  Gerald Warner, for example, sings the praises of Mubarak, who “was the best friend the West had in one of the most tinderbox areas on Earth; he made uneasy peace with Israel, kept the lid on smouldering fanaticism and was a reliable ally.”  Maybe so, but he was still a bastard, a corrupt bastard who robbed his people blind.  As did Ben Ali, his wife and her kin.  And sooner or later, with such bastards running (and robbing) the show, the general population will rise up and get rid of them.  I often think that if, back in the days of the Blair government, Cheri Blair had been following Leila Trabelsi’s example, siphoning off Britain’s wealth and dishing it out to her relatives like the actor Tony Booth and the journalist Lauren Booth, incensed Daily Telegraph readers and Spectator readers would have been the first to storm the barricades.

 

Of course, if Western powers have been backing this or that dictator until their moment of departure, they needn’t expect any love from the population afterwards.  It might seem realpolitik to support a bastard, but surely it’s even more realpolitik not to support an eventual loser?

 

If anyone qualifies as an ‘old Middle Eastern hand’ that Warner mentioned in his quote at the start of this entry, it’s Robert Fisk, the Independent’s correspondent for the region.  He made a pertinent remark about the Arab Spring / Uprising phenomenon in an article a month-and-a-half ago: “It is a slow business: every reader of this article will be dead of old age before the Arab ‘revolution’ is complete.”  Mehdi Hasan may be optimistic about it, but I’m afraid he’ll have more than a few grey hairs before he finds out if his optimism was justified.

 

(http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/regardless-of-whether-obama-or-romney-wins-americas-relations-with-the-arab-world-will-change-8229921.html)

 

No longer fine and Dandy

(c) DC Thomson / The Daily Telegraph

 

It’s hard to believe now, but once upon a time the United Kingdom had a thriving comics industry.  In my formative years, back in the 1970s, you were spoilt for choice.  There were titles read by younger boys and girls alike – the Dandy, Beano, Topper, Beezer, Sparky, Cor, Buster, Whizzer and Chips, Shiver and Shake, Knockout and Monster Fun.  For older girls there was the Mandy, Misty, Jackie, Tammy, Jinty and Bunty, and for older boys there was the Lion, Valiant, Smash, Tiger, Thunder, Warlord, Battle, Victor, Hotspur, Hornet and Valiant.  But that was it.  When you weren’t a boy or girl any longer, but a teenager, there was nothing.  British society tended to look down its nose at comic-book culture – I can think of several adults who never used the word ‘comics’ without preceding it with the word ‘trashy’ – and if anyone past the first year or two of high school was seen with their nose in one, it was assumed there was something seriously wrong with them.

 

Meanwhile, attempts to market comics at a slightly more mature readership in Britain ended in disaster.  Most notoriously, the hard-edged Action comic, which featured strips like Kids Rule OK, Look Out for Lefty, Dredger, Hellman of Hammer Force (the first British World War II comic strip to have a German hero) and the graphically-illustrated killer-shark saga Hook Jaw and which ran briefly and bloodily from 1976 to 1977, was forced off the stands by an unholy alliance of the dreary and conservative chain-newsagent’s W.H. Smith, indignant tabloid newspapers like the Sun, and that self-appointed guardian of Britain’s moral wholesomeness in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Mrs Mary Whitehouse.

 

It was an attitude that eventually doomed Britain’s comics to near extinction.  If the only function of comics was to entertain kids, they were obviously going to be in trouble as soon as those kids found something else to entertain them – which they did, once gaming technology began to develop in leaps and bounds in the 1980s.  By this time, a British comic had appeared that was smart and knowing enough to be appreciated by older as well as younger readers, with the result that those readers didn’t stop buying it when they were on the cusp of adolescence.  That comic was 2000 AD, which is still on the go today and whose modern readership, I imagine, is largely a middle-aged one that’s been buying it since its inception in 1977.  But even while I was enjoying 2000 AD strips like Strontium Dog, the ABC Warriors, Robo-Hunter and the peerless Judge Dredd, I was at the same time trying to get my head around some strange new contraptions that were turning up in the local amusement arcades – Space invaders, Space Duel and Asteroids, the first foot-soldiers of a new and eventually massive gaming industry that in Britain would help kill off nearly all of 2000 AD’s more juvenile counterparts.

 

I was thinking about the comics of my early youth last week because the final edition of Britain’s longest-running comic, the 75-year-old Dandy, went on sale then.  Once a titan of the British comic industry, selling two million copies weekly in the post-war era, the Dandy’s sales in recent times had declined to a pitiful 8000 a week and its publisher, the Dundee-based D.C. Thomson, lately decided to pull the plug on it.  (Though it’s not entirely gone – an ‘e-comic’ Dandy will continue to appear online.)  What does that leave now in the way of traditional paper-and-ink British comics?  There’s 2000 AD and its spin-off, Judge Dredd Megazine; Commando Comics, the last survivor of a once-crowded field dealing in comic-strip tales of derring-do from World War II; and the Dandy’s DC Thomson stable-mate, the 74-year-old Beano.  The yin to the Dandy’s yang, I suspect things must be looking grim for the poor old Beano these days as well.

 

News of the Dandy’s demise brought much indignant complaining and nostalgic caterwauling from middle-aged and elderly British journalists, columnists and politicians though none of them, I’m sure, had actually bought the bloody thing in at least 30 years.  However, I have to admit that – no doubt like the vast majority of Britain’s modern children, who were supposedly the Dandy’s target audience – I didn’t feel particularly bothered to see it go.  The Dandy was never my favourite comic.  Even when I was a small kid, I found something stiltedly old-fashioned and insufferably middle-class about it.

 

All right, I thought that hulking, slow-witted but amiable cowboy Desperate Dan was a stand-up kind of guy, as George W. Bush would say.  And Bully Beef with his ruddy face and pudding-bowl haircut, who featured in the strip Bully Beef and Chips, was a memorably psychotic piece of work.  But most of the Dandy’s strips left me cold – especially compared to those in the Beano, which always seemed to combine a joyous anarchy (see Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids and the mind-bendingly illogical Roger the Dodger, who went to extravagant lengths to get out of doing household chores for his parents, to the point where he expended ten times as much energy dodging the chores as he would have by just doing them; in the last frame he inevitably winked out of the page and said, “Great dodge, eh, readers?”) with the gently surreal, like the suburban Red Indians in Little Plum whose tepees came equipped with televisions sets and refrigerators.  It was somehow inevitable that in the 1980s, ‘Little Plum’ was the nickname that Britain’s music critics sneeringly bestowed on Ian Astbury, singer with hard rock band The Cult, who had a rather embarrassing obsession with Native American mysticism.

 

Typical of the Dandy strips was Brassneck, the adventures of a robot schoolboy whom an inventor created as company for his flesh-and-blood schoolboy son.  Togged out in short pants and a school-cap and with a leather satchel strapped to his back, Brassneck looked about 40 years out of date even in the 1970s.  And, worse, he wasn’t very funny.  There was also Winker Watson, about a smart and super-smug prankster at an expensive boarding school who made life miserable for his teachers and his dimmer-witted schoolmates – a bit like the Jennings books combined with the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  In my day too, the Dandy was still printing Black Bob, a sedentary black-and-white strip about a shepherd and his faithful Border collie living in the Scottish hills, which had first seen publication in 1944.  Joyous and anarchic it was not.

 

The most perplexing Dandy strip of all, however, was the Jocks and the Geordies, a tale of rivalry between two schoolboy gangs who lived on facing sides of the England-Scotland border, the tartan bonnet-wearing Jocks and the school-uniformed Geordies (from England’s northernmost city, Newcastle-upon-Tyne).  In subsequent decades, I discussed the Jocks and the Geordies with many of my comic-reading contemporaries in Scotland and none of us could ever figure out why, in all the stories where the two gangs squared up to each other, the Geordies had always come out on top.  By the law of averages, you’d expect the Jocks to win half of the encounters, or at least to get a symbolic victory now and again.  But no, the Geordies always vanquished them.  This was despite the fact that the Dandy’s publisher, DC Thomson, was Dundonian and therefore Scottish.  What was going on?  Well, no doubt DC Thomson understood that their English readers outnumbered their Scottish ones by about nine to one and were giving the majority of their readers what they wanted – eternal English victory.

 

By the 1980s, DC Thomson may have regretted being so nice to the Geordies of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, because by then four young artists and writers in that city – Chris Donald, Simon Donald, Graham Dury and Simon Thorp – had devised the scatological and massively-popular adult comic Viz.  In between printing strips that poked fun at certain social types familiar in modern Britain (Mrs Brady – Old Lady, Student Grant, The Fat Slags, Sid the Sexist, The Modern Parents) and printing strips that poked fun at certain British B-list celebrities (The Adventures of Little Shane MacGowan, Saint Bernard Manning, Tony Slattery and his Phoney Cattery, Andrew Motion – Poet Laureate), Viz printed strips that poked fun at the famous comic-book creations of DC Thomson, usually ones that’d appeared in the Beano or Dandy: Biffa Bacon (a violent Geordie version of Bully Beef, punctuated regularly with headbutts, blood, broken noses and bust teeth), Little Plumber, Roger the Lodger (“Great lodge, eh, readers?”), Black Bag the Faithful Border Binliner, Tinribs (a spoof on Brassneck featuring a really crap schoolboy robot) and, inevitably, Wanker Watson.  Needless to say, Viz became so popular so quickly during the 1980s because it was lapped up by undergraduate-age readers who, a decade earlier, had been the last generation to read the likes of the Beano and Dandy en masse.  When DC Thomson threatened legal action in the 1990s, Viz retaliated by printing a strip called DC Thomson – the Humourless Scottish Git.

 

Incidentally, if I had to name my favourite British comic strips, I would probably opt for Adam Eterno, the saga of a sorcerer’s apprentice cursed to drift through time and space (thus having adventures in the past, present and future) for eternity, or for at least until he was struck down made by a weapon made of gold; and Janus Stark, about a Victorian escapologist with sinister powers of muscular contraction who used his snake-like body and Houdini-esque wits to fight crime and right injustices.  Adam Eterno first turned up in the Thunder in 1970 and is commemorated by this website: http://adameternoforever.tripod.com/; Janus Stark made his first appearance in the Smash in 1969 and also has a website dedicated to him, which was set up in France – the strip’s gothic charm was apparently better appreciated by French comic fans than by British ones: http://janustark.free.fr/.  Both strips ooze with a haunting 1970s weirdness that British comics managed, occasionally, to conjure up when they forgot they were supposed to be catering for children and allowed their writers and artists to stretch their imaginations.

 

Meanwhile, for an insider’s website about British comics generally, try this blog by artist Lew Stringer: http://lewstringer.blogspot.com/. And if you’re suffering Dandy withdrawal symptoms already, you can always check out this new website: http://www.dandy.com/.  I’ve just looked at it and – aaargh! – Brassneck is on it.

 

(c) DC Thomson