The tomb of capitalism



By rights, the Edinburgh tomb pictured above should be garlanded with huge, expensive wreaths and floral tributes left by the wealthiest entrepreneurs and moguls on the planet: Roman Abramovich, Richard Branson, Steve Forbes, Bill Gates, Ralph Lauren, Sir Ka-shing Li, Vladimir Lisin, Rupert Murdoch, Mark Zuckerberg, Donald Trump and Mr Burns from The Simpsons.  Mind you, conspiracy theorists might argue that Donald Trump and Mr Burns are actually one and the same person.  You never see them in the same room together, and I suspect that when Trump takes off his toupée he bears a striking resemblance to the shiny-pated billionaire owner of Springfield Nuclear Power Plant.


Interred within this tomb are the remains of Kirkcaldy-born and Glasgow University-educated Adam Smith, who was the granddaddy of modern economics, the author of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, and the first man to really articulate the tenets of the free-market economy, including the roles played in it by competition and self-interest.  Margaret Thatcher was such a fan of Smith’s economic philosophy that she was said to carry a copy of his book around in her handbag.  And she could never fathom why most people in Scotland didn’t like her since, as she berated them whenever she ventured north of the border, the Scots – i.e. Smith – had ‘invented’ Thatcherism.



Smith’s tomb is found in Canongate Kirkyard, whose gates open onto the Royal Mile, that narrow and ultra-historic thoroughfare in central Edinburgh that scoots down the slope from the castle to Holyrood Palace.  The Canongate area of the Mile, at the lower end, was a separate parish from Edinburgh until the 1800s.  Built in 1691, the church standing in the kirkyard thus provided a place of worship for the people of Canongate, whereas further up the road the parishioners of Edinburgh proper went to St Giles’ Cathedral.  Thanks to the peculiarities of some ancient charters, however, the Parish of Canongate also included Edinburgh Castle on the far side of St Giles.  For that reason many soldiers of the castle came to be buried in the kirkyard.  And at its northern end you’ll find a 26-foot-high granite cross honouring those soldiers, which was erected in 1880.



Smith is the cemetery’s most famous inhabitant but there are others of note.  Also buried there is the 18th century poet Robert Fergusson.  His poetic career was short-lived and tragic to say the least – he started writing verse at the age of 22 and died two years later in a lunatic asylum – but his example was enough to inspire a young Robert Burns to take up poetry too.  So for that alone, for being the John-the-Baptist figure who paved the way for Scotland’s national bard, Fergusson deserves his place in Scottish literary history.  The stone that commemorates him in the kirkyard was supposedly financed by Burns himself.  Meanwhile, on the pavement outside the kirkyard gates, there’s a rather dandy statue of Fergusson that was put there in 2004.



Buried there too are the brothers and publishers James and John Ballantyne, who were friends and business associates of Sir Walter Scott.  When the Ballantynes’ business collapsed in 1825, Scott himself was ruined and he spent the next six years, until his death in 1831, sitting at his desk and scribbling book after book in a determined effort to write his way out of debt.  The Ballantyne brothers are honoured by a mere plaque, not by a memorial stone, which no doubt reflects the reduced circumstances their family ended up in.


Another businessman with a literary connection buried in the kirkyard is Ebenezer Lennox Scroggie, a corn merchant and whisky-supplier.  When Charles Dickens was exploring the kirkyard in 1841, he encountered Scroggie’s grave marker and misread its inscription, which identified him as a ‘meal man’ – i.e. a grain merchant.  Dickens thought it said ‘mean man’ and from this misunderstanding he got the inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge, the miserly central character of A Christmas Carol.


The moral philosopher Dugald Stewart lies there, as does the merchant Sir William Fettes, who bequeathed a fortune for the founding of Edinburgh’s poshest school, Fettes Academy.  Among those folk who can claim Fettes as their alma mater are, impressively, the fictional James Bond; and, less impressively, the all-too-real Tony Blair.


After Adam Smith, though, the cemetery’s most famous tenant – or reputed tenant – is the unfortunate David Riccio, who was the Italian secretary of Mary Queen of Scots.  Massively unpopular among the Scottish nobles, and rumoured even to have made his royal employer pregnant, Riccio was hacked to death by assassins in front of Mary at Holyrood Palace in 1566.  He’s said to rest under a large stone by the Canongate Kirk’s eastern wall, although this is unlikely – for the simple reason that an Italian Catholic would scarcely have been interred in a Scottish Protestant cemetery at the time.



The area in front of Canongate Kirk, which borders on the Royal Mile, is impressively gothic-looking at this time of year, with some gaunt trees, some low winding walls and a statue of a figure wrestling desperately with a lion.  It may not be clear in this photograph I took a few weeks ago, but the dark bundle lying on the ground below the tree on the right was actually a dead crow – a truly Poe-esque detail.



Unfortunately, when you go around the back of the kirk and explore the cemetery’s northern reaches, the surroundings are less picturesque and the atmosphere is less haunting than what you get in other Edinburgh burial grounds like Greyfriars or St Cuthbert’s.  This is due to the modern developments of Yuppie-style apartment buildings that have sprung up or are springing up along its eastern, western and northern sides.  These developments have been sneakily positioned back from the Royal Mile, behind its historic facades, apparently in the hope that any future UNESCO inspectors who come to central Edinburgh to assess whether or not it merits its continuing status as a World Heritage Site won’t notice them.


It’s a terrible pity but…  Well, I suppose that’s capitalism for you.


James Ellis: 1931 – 2014


(c) BBC


I was sad to hear about the passing of Belfast actor James Ellis the other week.  When I was a kid living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, Ellis’s accent seemed to be the only sane Northern Irish accent that was broadcast regularly on UK-wide television.  You heard plenty of Northern Irish voices on the BBC and ITV news thanks to the madness that was going on in the province at the time, but they usually belonged to nut-job politicians, nut-job preachers or nut-job terrorists.  On the other hand, Ellis, who played policeman Bert Lynch in countless episodes of the BBC’s long-running series Z-Cars, was a welcome reminder that most Northern Irish folk were ordinary, decent citizens just trying to get on with things like anyone else.


Ellis had acted since the early 1950s, first with the Ulster Theatre Group, where his duties included managing the group’s summer theatre in the port-town of Larne, north of Belfast.  The Troubles were not to ignite in Northern Ireland until the end of the following decade, but the atmosphere there was still uptight and sensibilities were easily offended.  For instance, Ellis had a small role in a 1958 production of Gerard McLarnan’s play The Bonefire, which was a tale of a mixed Catholic / Protestant couple who try to commit suicide in an unusual and symbolic way – using a Twelfth-of-July bonfire as their mode of departure.  It was enough to cause demonstrations outside the theatre.


Later, when Ellis tried to stage Sam Thompson’s play Over the Bridge, which was about a sectarian dispute in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard, he discovered that the Ulster Theatre Group were unwilling to back him.  The group’s board of directors told the Belfast Telegraph that the play “was full of grossly vicious phrases and situations which would undoubtedly offend and affront every section of the public.”  Ellis and other actors left the group, formed their own company and put the play on anyway.  During a six-week run in Belfast it attracted 42,000 paying punters and it later played in Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London.


By 1961 Ellis had moved to England and was making television appearances.  In 1962 he found his way into the cast of a new BBC police series, Z-Cars, which was instrumental in moving British TV’s portrayal of coppers away from the saintly, idealised figures featured in the likes of 1950s shows like Dixon of Dock Green and presenting the force in a grittier, warts-and-all manner, more like the police-procedure dramas of today.  The show was massively successful and remained on the airwaves until the late 1970s.


Many of the actors who appeared in Z-Cars during its initial years became big names because of it – Stratford Johns, Frank Windsor, Colin Welland and a relatively quiet but still sonorous Brian Blessed – although Ellis was the only one who stayed with the series until the very end, his Lynch character maturing from a young, excitable and smart-Alec Irish constable into an older, wiser and avuncular inspector.  (Johns and Windsor, playing the impeccably worldly-wise detectives Barlow and Watt, did appear in a couple of spin-off shows, including an oddball docu-drama in 1973 in which their Z-Cars characters investigated the Jack-the-Ripper killings a century earlier.)


Post Z-Cars, Ellis’s most famous acting assignment was probably playing Norman Martin in a trilogy of plays shown as part of the BBC’s drama-anthology series Play for Today and scripted by Northern Irish writer Graham Reid: Too Late to Talk to Billy (1982), A Matter of Choice for Billy (1983) and A Coming to Terms for Billy (1984).  The working-class Belfast Protestant family of which Ellis – now visibly older and bulkier than in his Z-Cars days – is the patriarch does not have its troubles to seek.  There’s the ongoing unrest of Northern Ireland’s political and security situation rumbling in the background, of course, but the main threats to the Martins’ well-being are internal ones.  In the first play Ellis’s wife is dying in hospital, Ellis himself is a bullying, violent and drunken boor, and the two eldest children – the titular Billy and his sister Lorna – are struggling to hold the family together.


The first instalment, Too Late to Talk to Billy, was grim and unflinching by the standards of the time, thanks mostly to the physical and emotional violence emanating from Ellis’s hard-man character.  However, later in the trilogy, Ellis mellows as he leaves his family in Belfast, travels to England to find work, falls under the spell of a fussy middle-class Englishwoman and gets ‘tamed’ by her.  Billy, on the other hand, seems to go the other way.  By the time Reid got around to writing a postscript to the trilogy in 1987, simply entitled Lorna, it’d become clear that the quiet, plain and hard-working eldest daughter of the family is the truly heroic one.  Meanwhile, Billy is showing signs of becoming a knob-end as bad as his father at his worst.


Playing Billy, incidentally, was an unknown young actor called Kenneth Brannagh.  Yes, the man who’d later be hailed by the London press as the Great White Hope of English theatre, and who later still would direct the likes of Sleuth (2007) and Thor (2011), is actually Northern Irish – although his family moved from Belfast to England when he was nine and he quickly anglicised his voice to avoid getting bullied at school.  But he managed to put the old brogue back on for the Billy plays.


(c) BBC


On TV, for a long time, James Ellis was the go-to man if you needed a big hearty Irishman in your show.  Accordingly, he turned up in Only Fools and Horses, In Sickness and in Health, Bird of a Feather, The Bill (a show that obviously owed a big debt to Z-Cars), Boon, Lovejoy, Doctor Who, Casualty, Heartbeat and, inevitably, Ballykissangel.  In the early 1990s, he also appeared in Channel 4’s admirably bizarre late-evening sitcom Nightingales, alongside Robert Lindsay and David Threlfall.


In addition, Ellis appeared in the very occasional film.  I notice that according to his IMBb profile he had a bit-part in Stuart Gordon’s gory zombie horror-comedy Re-Animator (1985), although I suspect that’s an error.  Surely it was a bit-part American actor also called James Ellis who was in the Re-Animator cast.  But maybe I should watch the movie again and check.


The James Ellis was definitely in the same year’s No Surrender, scripted by Liverpudlian writer Alan Bleasdale and set in the antagonistic world of Liverpool’s Protestant-Irish and Catholic-Irish diasporas.  We see Ellis at the very beginning of the film, playing a blind man who gets mugged in a city underpass – well, two youths attempt to mug him but Ellis’s character, who was once a professional boxer and still has formidable fighting skills even though he can no longer see, manages to beat the crap of them.  That sets the tone for the rest of the film, which is a comedy that’s as black as coal.


(c) Palace Pictures


No Surrender charts the events of a single, chaotic evening in the life of its hero, played by Michael Angelis.  He’s just taken on a new job as a nightclub manager, not knowing that (a) the club is run by gangsters, and (b) the previous manager has decided to show the middle-finger at those gangsters by making Angelis’s first night on the job as difficult as possible.  Angelis’s predecessor, it transpires, has done some creative double and triple-booking.  He’s booked in parties from the city’s Irish-Protestant Orange Lodge and from its Irish-Catholic Hibernian Club, who hate each other to the point of violence, and to top it all he’s also booked in a group of patients on an outing from a psychiatric hospital.


Meanwhile, for the evening’s entertainment, he’s lined up a manically depressed magician (played by Elvis Costello), whose white rabbit has just died, and a stupendously bad punk band whose leader, if memory serves me correctly, is played by one of Merseyside’s many McGann brothers.  Even worse, Angelis discovers, the club’s owners have found out what the previous manager was up to and are now busy torturing him in a back-room on the premises.  Joanne Whalley is also involved in the shenanigans – her presence there, in fact, is the only piece of luck that Angelis has all night.


Ellis appears among a lovely ensemble of veteran Irish actors, including Ray McAnally, J.D. Devlin (who’d been a member of the Ulster Theatre Group too) and Mark Mulholland (who’d appeared in the Billy trilogy as an ailing, slobbish and irascible uncle that – just to add to their woes – the Martin family get lumbered with).  Ellis’s character, though, spends most of the film in an amusing double-act with the character actor Michael Ripper, who during the 1950s and 1960s had appeared in countless Hammer horror films in small roles as innkeepers, poachers, man-servants and grave-robbers.


No Surrender is all but forgotten today, partly due to the fact that the sectarian culture it portrayed is less prominent now, in English cities at least, and partly due to the fact that many people found its tone unpalatable.  But if you’re familiar with a world where the question ‘What school did you go to?’ is intended not to determine your social class but to determine your religion, and if you like your humour dark, No Surrender is worth tracking down.


In recent years, ill-health meant that Ellis was sadly absent from Britain’s TV screens.  However, he definitely deserves his place in the annals of Irish acting.  Nowadays – in this, the era of Liam Neeson, Stephen Rea, John Lynch, Michael Smiley, Ciaran Hines, Adrian Dunbar and James Nesbitt (an actor whose career seems to oscillate between being Bofur the Dwarf in The Hobbit movies and being annoying in various Yellow Pages and Thomas Cook advertisements) – it feels like you can’t sit down and watch a movie or TV series without being immediately hit by a Northern Irish accent.  But James Ellis was the man who blazed the trail.  In fact, during the grim days of the 1970s, he sometimes seemed to be the only positive advertisement there was for Northern Ireland.


Meat is murder



Yes, the above photograph is not of a doll’s house, but of a doll’s shop – a doll’s butcher’s shop.  This detailed and comprehensive, if a tad gruesome, miniature with its array of hanging cuts of meat of various sizes and carcass-parts, is perhaps my favourite exhibit in the Museum of Childhood, which is another of the durable (and free to enter) wee museums that are dotted along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.



I’m not a fan of childhood per se.  In fact, I’m of the old-fashioned and curmudgeonly opinion that children should be seen and not heard, and I believe that the best way to handle juvenile bad behaviour is not to implement tolerant modern parenting methods but to deal with the little shits in the manner that Roald Dahl dealt with Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde, Veruca Salt and Mike Teavee in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  That said, I seem to have a strange fascination with toy museums.


In the late 1990s, I can remember visiting a lovely one in Melbourne, Australia, but I can’t find any mention of it now on the Internet, so I have to assume it is no more.  Definitely no more is the London Toy Museum that once operated in Bayswater but was closed down in 1999.  I will always remember it for its astonishing working model of a coal mine, four metres long and three metres high, which had moving lifts and pulleys and some 200 miniature miners toiling within its labyrinthine shafts and tunnels.  Elsewhere in London, Pollock’s Toy Museum off the Tottenham Court Road is still on the go, but it’s rather small.  And there was a charming little toy museum in Valetta, Malta, when I was there a few years ago, but its owner was getting on in years, so it might have pulled down its shutters now.


The Museum of Childhood – founded by Patrick Murray, who was both a toy collector and an Edinburgh city councillor – seems to be going strong, happily.  The section of it that invariably draws my curiosity is the first-floor exhibition room, accessible via the spiral staircase on the left just after the entrance lobby and shop.  This room is given over to the display of doll’s houses, miniature shops, toy theatres and a small but eccentric selection of puppets.



But it’s that tiny butcher’s shop that I always find myself staring at.  I wonder if it was ever actually presented to a child as a toy – and if it was, what on earth was going on in the minds of that child’s parents.  Perhaps in the early 1900s some super-wealthy mogul in Chicago’s meat-packing industry, which was so vividly and viscerally described by Upton Sinclair in his book The Jungle, had it made as a special gift for the little tyke who was his son and heir.



Peebles gets booked up



Here are some photographs taken at four o’clock last Sunday afternoon, one hour before the end of the book sale held in Peebles Burgh Hall by the local Peace Group.  The hall was quiet by this point, but earlier in the weekend it’d seen dense, bustling crowds.


In fact, this two-day sale has become a yearly institution in my home town of Peebles.  The one held in 2013, for instance, saw some 21,000 books brought into the Burgh Hall, attracted about 1000 visitors and raised £8,200.  I suspect that for many folk in Peebles, the sale is the one occasion during the year when they buy books.  They acquire a wheelbarrow-load of them, spend the next twelve months reading them and then re-donate them to the following year’s sale.


The lengthy table in this photograph supports a collection of books that the organisers had deemed ‘Scottish’.



And this particular picture taken at the Scottish table might cause concern about an unhealthy lack of diversity in the current Scottish book-publishing scene.  Aye, 60% of those books are by Ian Rankin.  The remaining 40% are by Alexander McCall Smith.



However, another photograph suggests there’s more to Caledonian publishing than books about craggy middle-aged Fife men investigating mur-r-r-ders in Edinburgh and lady detectives being sweet and life-affirming in Botswana.  As you can see, there’s room too for books about Mary Queen of Scots and books called Ye Cannae Shove yer Grannie aff a Bus.  And you’ll notice in the picture’s bottom right hand corner that Ian McEwan now qualifies as a Scottish writer, no doubt because his surname begins with ‘Mc’.  So I guess Scotland literature can lay claim to Patrick McGrath, Patrick McCabe, Carson McCullers and Cormac McCarthy as well.



Elsewhere, I was pleased to see this novel by the late, great Norman Mailer.  Its title became one of my catchphrases when I was young.  Whenever I found my way into an occasional nightclub (which in those days was the only way I could buy a drink at one or two o’clock in the morning) and someone there was daft enough to ask me for a dance, I’d snap back, “Tough guys don’t dance!”  I liked the clever literary allusion in my response, although to be honest the other person usually thought I was a dick.



I also stumbled across some long-forgotten books written by the prolific and once-massively-popular Dennis Wheatley.  I didn’t think much of Wheatley as a writer – apart from, perhaps, those old black magic potboilers he penned like The Devil Rides Out – but somehow I find it reassuring that the likes of Unholy Crusade and Vendetta in Spain can still surface at a book sale in 2014.



Meanwhile, here’s someone else I haven’t seen for a while.  Yes, it’s Wilbur Smith!  While I was at college I had a flatmate who became totally addicted to Wilbur Smith.  So serious did his addiction get that he did nothing but lie in his bed all day long, reading his way through Wilbur’s hefty paperbacks.  As a result, he failed his exams at the end of the year and got thrown out of his course and I never heard of him again.  So remember kids, Wilbur screws you up.  Choose life, not Wilbur.



And here’s Alastair MacLean – whatever happened to him?  I hardly ever see anyone these days reading one of old Alastair’s pulpy war novels, although when I was 13 half the male population of my school-year seemed to have their noses stuck in Where Eagles Dare or The Guns of Navarone between classes.  That was the more normal and squarer half of the male school-year, I should add.  The weirder and less savoury half had moved on to Sven Hassel and James Herbert by then.



At this year’s book sale I tried to behave myself.  When I popped in on Saturday, I bought only 17 books, which is about a dozen less than I’ve bought at previous sales.  But then I popped in again on Sunday, ostensibly to take a few photographs, and ended up buying a dozen more.  At this rate, by the time I ever get around to owning property, I’ll be able to line the walls of my living room with all the books I’ve bought at the Peebles Peace Group Book Sale.


The only depressing thing about it was the fact that very few of the people poring over those laden tables seemed to be under the age of forty.  I suppose nowadays you could compress the contents of the thousands of books on display in the Burgh Hall into electronic form and store them in some tiny device that could be carried around in your back pocket.  This must make the bulk and weight of an old-fashioned book seem quite illogical to the younger generation.  But it’s their loss.  I’d like to see them line the walls of their living rooms with kindles and memory sticks.


3 gets chopped down


(c) BBC


Last week’s news that the BBC has decided to save money by axing its youth-orientated channel BBC3 caused a stir in the media and brought protests from various talents like Matt Lucas and Jack Whitehall, whose careers had received a leg-up thanks to the channel in the past.  The news didn’t inspire much more than a weary shrug from me, however.


I was outside the channel’s target audience, which was the segment of the British public between the ages of 16 and 34 years old.  But I have to say that whenever I tuned into it, what I found myself watching (a) was usually bollocks, and (b) would still have seemed like bollocks if I’d been two or three decades younger and a member of the target demographic.  Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of CrispsF**k off, I’m GingerSnog, Marry, AvoidPramface?  The programme-titles alone were enough to make me grab the remote and hurry on to BBC4, where I could then drift off into a peaceful slumber whilst watching a documentary about the architecture of medieval cathedrals or about British progressive rock bands in 1973.


People have complained that the BBC’s termination of its third channel is unfair because over the years it did produce some popular, and decent, programmes like Torchwood, Gavin and Stacy and Being Human.  Well, Torchwood – the supposedly ‘adult’ (though ‘adolescent’ was a more accurate description) spin-off from Doctor Who – did acquire a following, but I thought it was mostly dreadful.  Gavin and Stacy was alright, but never seemed as good to me as folk claimed it was, and ironically for a show birthed on a youth-orientated TV channel most of its entertainment value was provided by its older cast-members, such as Rob Brydon, Alison Steadman and Ruth Jones.  For a time I did really like Being Human – the supernatural sitcom about a ghost, a vampire and a werewolf sharing a flat – but eventually it became too convoluted with sub-plots and I lost interest.


(c) BBC 


To be honest, though, if those are all the quality (or allegedly quality) shows that the channel has managed to produce in a decade, then its success rate has been dismally low.


Critics of the decision to end BBC3 have also pointed out that when the BBC tried to pull the plug on its channel BBC6 Music a couple of years ago, there was such an angry backlash from its listeners – middle-aged wrinklies to a woman and man – that they reversed their decision and kept the channel going.  The implication is that BBC3 will get the chop because if its audience – a much younger audience – objects, they won’t be listened to because, well, they’re young.  So it’s unfair.  It’s ageist.


But there’s an important difference between BBC6 Music and BBC3.  The music played on the former is an eclectic mixture of the alternative, independent, exotic, eccentric and obscure – music that the late John Peel used to play on his legendary late-night radio show and music that hardly ever, or never, gets played on the commercial stations.  Its content, then, fits in with the BBC’s charter to educate and inform as well as to entertain – providing a platform for artists who might not get a platform in commercially-driven media.  Unfortunately, the sort of dross shown on BBC3 can be seen on rival commercial channels too – for instance, on ITV2, the domain of Keith Lemon, or on Channel 5, run by the soft-core porn baron and owner of the Daily Express Richard Desmond.  Indeed, it seemed at times that BBC3’s raison d’etre was to prove that the BBC could make TV programmes as crass, idiotic and depressing as the TV programmes made by anyone else.


For the record, the BBC3 shows that really got on my tits were its annual Most Annoying People of… specials that’d be aired at the end of each year.  They’d offer a round-up of the 100 celebrities deemed to have been, well, most annoying during the previous twelve months and a series of talking heads – gossip columnists, showbiz pundits, former reality-show contestants and other ‘personalities’ – would be wheeled on to comment waggishly about those celebrities’ failings.  It was, inevitably, a bitch-fest.  I have no doubt that the celebrities in question – the usual suspects like Posh Spice, David Beckham, Katie Price, Peter Andre, Lily Allen, Jodie Marsh, etc. – were annoying.  But they were surely less annoying than the rogue’s gallery of wankers who appeared before the cameras in this show to bitch and sneer and snicker at them.


Actually, this programme struck me as irresponsible for a channel aimed at a youthful demographic.  In an era when the media devotes so much alarmed attention to the issue of bullying – physical bullying in school playgrounds, cyber-bullying via social media – why should BBC3 set a bad example by giving these tossers the oxygen of publicity?  Why should BBC3 make it seem natural and cool for people to heap ridicule and spite on other people whom they’d decided didn’t measure up to their own dubious standards of acceptability?


I think youth TV programming is hellishly difficult to do.  Even when I was a youth, most programmes meant to include me in their audience just made me want to switch off the television, or in some cases (like The Word, Channel 4’s notorious late-night show in the early 1990s) made me want to put my foot through the screen.


If such shows are hosted by older people, trying to be hip and ‘get down with’ the kids, they seem patronising, embarrassing and even creepy.  (As it turned out, the vibe of creepiness I got from Jimmy Saville when I saw him presenting Top of the Pops in the 1970s was well-founded.)


And if they’re hosted by people who are the same age as the audience they’re designed for…  Well, such people tend to be the most media-savvy of their age-group.  They tend to be the most extrovert, the most assertive, the most self-consciously trendy and cool and stylish.  They tend to be the people who, had I encountered them in real life when I was a relatively ordinary, relatively uncool person in my late teens or early twenties, I would have found insufferable and would have happily walked a ten-mile detour to avoid meeting.  (Again, Terry Christian and Amanda de Cadenet on The Word were perfect examples of this.  They reminded me of the biggest, most full-of-themselves A-holes I’d been unfortunate enough to attend college with.)


I’m sure there is a proper way of doing youth programming, so that it doesn’t alienate the majority of its intended audience by being infantile, or crass, or smug, or irritating.  But one thing’s for sure.  BBC3 certainly wasn’t doing it.


You can’t have your cake and eat it — unless you’re a journalist




It may surprise regular readers of this blog to learn that, dour old leftie though I am, I actually have some time for Alan Massie, the conservative-minded novelist and regular columnist in the Scotsman newspaper.  I don’t agree with Massie’s politics but – something increasingly rare amongst those who use newspaper-pages to air their opinions – he’s usually respectful of those who oppose his views.  At times he even ventures some sympathy, though not support, for their views.


(I’ll also put in a good word for his son Alex, who’s a chip off the old Massie block – a Tory, yes, but not one who believes that everyone who disagrees with him is a communist scumbag deserving to be put against a wall and shot.  He’s one of the few commentators worth reading in that Hooray-Henry-populated magazine the Spectator.  For instance, in the following piece, he pulls no punches whilst analysing the rhetoric of Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, at UKIP’s recent spring conference.  Predictably, the comments thread below the article is packed with gibbering, reactionary Spectator-readers heaping abuse on Massie Junior’s head:


Last week, an opinion piece by Alan Massie in the Scotsman entitled ROAD TO AIRSTRIP ONE PAVED WITH GOOD INTENTIONS caught my eye.  This was written in response to a plan by the Scottish government to provide every child in Scotland with a ‘minder’ who’ll be responsible for making sure he or she is being properly reared and looked after – watching out for “children who are neglected and others who are abused” and “some who are, quite simply, being brought up badly.”  Massie was uncharacteristically severe in his assessment of the plan.  He denounced it, claiming “(t)he assumption may be presented to us as benevolent, but, whatever the intention, the consequences are likely to be nasty in practice as the subjection of individuals and families to the state is deplorable to anyone who values freedom.”


Massie’s opinion has been shared by most people who’ve written about the plan in the press.  Similarly disdainful, for example, was Kevin McKenna writing in the Observer the other Sunday and normally McKenna’s political views are the polar opposite of Massie’s.  Elsewhere, indignant headlines have featured terms like ‘snoopers’, ‘nanny state’ and ‘Big Brother’.


But wait.  If the scheme is so detestable, why would the Scottish government want to impose it on the public in the first place?  I suspect a major reason for it becoming a government policy was the amount of media coverage given in recent years to stories of neglected children, abused children, children running loose in the streets like feral dogs and children being starved or beaten to death by monstrous parents.  Actually, if this image of ‘Broken Britain’ that the press has been so busy creating is true, it seems a miracle that any kids remain alive now to be minded.  The dire situation, newspapers would have you believe, has been aided and abetted by inept social work departments incapable of detecting such neglect and abuse before events reach a tragic climax.


Indeed, if you’re to believe the stories, the British social-work profession is full of incompetents.  Ever since most British newspapers had their great right-wing love-in with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, it’s been fashionable for them to depict public-sector workers as lazy underachievers content to live off taxpayers’ money – unlike those sexy wealth-creators who toil heroically in the private sector.  And social workers have been at the top of the press’s shit-list, despised even more than state-school teachers.  In fact, if there is a dearth of ability in the profession nowadays, it’s probably because a diet of horror stories in the newspapers has convinced new graduates that taking a job in social work is the vocational equivalent of contracting leprosy.


It’s just one example of Britain’s newspapers wanting to have their cake and eat it.  They bang on about an issue that they find disgraceful, scandalous and reprehensible.  Then, when their banging on about it prompts a reaction, they bang on about the reaction being disgraceful, scandalous and reprehensible too.  At other times, though, newspapers are full of insane contradictions because they see nothing wrong about holding two conflicting viewpoints at the same time – either out of hypocrisy or out of plain stupidity.


Here are some other examples of Britain’s newspapers wanting to have their cake and eat it:


Hammering on about the country being infested with paedophiles, who are ready to pounce on unsuspecting children from behind every wall, hedge, bush and tree.  Then hammering on about: (1) parents keeping their kids indoors with only their computers to play with, so that they become timid, unadventurous and fat; and (2) young boys becoming ‘feminised’ by having too many female teachers and too few male teachers who’d otherwise have provided positive male role models.  (Of course many men no longer want to work as primary-school teachers for fear they might be suspected of being paedophiles.)


And hammering on about paedophiles whilst loading the showbiz sections of their websites with photographs of pouting adolescent daughters of famous film stars, clad in bikinis or skimpy dresses.  Yes, Daily Mail, I’m looking at you:


Using the young, tragic face of the now-six-years-missing Madeline McCann to milk their readers’ sympathy and sell newspapers. At the same time slandering Madeline’s parents by accusing them of being involved in her abduction.  That’s the modus operandi of the Daily Express:


Deriding the European Union because it’s packed with loathsome, and foreign, bureaucrats who like nothing better than meddling in British affairs and imposing loathsome, and foreign, ideas like minimum wages and human rights.  Then cheering the President of the EU Commission to the rafters when he warns that an independent Scotland would find it ‘very difficult’ or even ‘impossible’ to join the EU.


Stoking up readers’ fears about immigration into Britain to hysterical levels.  Yet never missing any opportunity to praise London – a city choc-a-bloc with immigrants – for its entrepreneurship, economic dynamism and cultural vibrancy.


Shelling out serious sums of money for photographs – the more intrusive the better – of a certain member of Britain’s Royal Family, with the result that the paparazzi make her life a misery.  Then gnashing their teeth, tearing out their hair, printing black-edged memorial issues and generally indulging in a gigantic blub-a-thon when said Royal-Family-member gets killed in a car crash whilst trying to escape from a pursuing fleet of paparazzi.  Who were only trying to get photographs of her, for which those newspapers were desperate to pay so much money.


Making an almighty clamour when revelations of Jimmy Saville’s industrial-scale abuse of children and young women arose after Saville’s death, which coincidently was a handy way for them to make life uncomfortable for their least favourite public corporation, the BBC.  Then when other TV personalities of Saville’s vintage, such as William Roache and Dave Lee Travis, are accused of perpetrating similar abuse and brought to court and finally found not guilty, complaining about their trials being a ‘waste of money’.


Lamenting about educational standards being dumbed down.  Of course, British newspapers, with their noble tradition of intellectualism, have not contributed to the dumbing down of British society in recent decades in any way.


Both (c) The Sun


Feral kids, paedophiles, child abductors, EU bureaucrats, immigrants, predatory TV stars, mass stupidity…  The common denominator in many of these press stories is fear.  Because, often, fear is what induces people to buy newspapers.  Now that newspaper sales in Britain are in steady decline thanks to people turning to the Internet for news and information – the Scotsman, for instance, has seen its daily readership dip below the 30,000 mark for the first time ever, has cut back its arts coverage to two days a week and is generally dying on its arse – you can expect that fear-factor to be cranked up to higher levels than ever before.  No doubt that means the British press will tie itself in yet bigger knots in terms of consistency and logic.


Recent British horror movies


(c) Tigon Films


We’re less than seven months away from the referendum on Scottish independence and as Westminster-based politicians try to ramp up the threats (“You can’t keep the pound!”) and ramp up the guilt (“You’re dishonouring all those Scottish soldiers who died fighting for Britain!”) regarding what’d happen if people north of the border voted for independence, I find myself hoping more and more that independence will happen.  After all, when the likes of David Cameron, George Osborne and the Daily Mail urge me to do something, my gut instinct is to do the opposite.


However, there’s one thing at least that still makes me feel proud to be British.  That’s the cultural phenomenon known as ‘the British horror film’, a body of movies – a body of art – that’s fascinated me since I started watching late-night television when I was eleven or twelve years old.  Still now, I only have to stumble across an old Hammer horror film whilst channel-surfing and immediately God Save the Queen plays in my ears and a patriotic love of all things red, white and blue rises in my heart.  Indeed, if the Better Together campaign, which is urging Scots to vote to remain in Great Britain, could get celebrity endorsements from Peter Cushing, Donald Pleasence, Michael Gough, Ingrid Pitt and Linda Hayden (who was the sexy leader of the devil-worshipping cult in 1971’s Blood on Satan’s Claw), I would probably switch my allegiance from the ‘yes to independence’ camp to the ‘no’ one.  However, as all those people are now dead, apart from the delectable Ms Hayden, that won’t happen.


According to recent newspaper reports, the British film industry generally is in dire straits – again – but somehow new British horror movies still surface.  They barely or never get shown inside a cinema, but they turn up on DVD and, after a while, get a couple of airings on the Horror Channel on Freeview.  Actually, some of them are so bad they don’t deserve the oxygen of publicity offered by a DVD release and the Horror Channel.  I tried watching something called Stag Night of the Dead the other evening and now feel I’ve inflicted serious damage on my cerebral cortex.


Anyway, one way or another, I’ve encountered quite a few new (or newish) British horror movies recently and I thought I’d share my thoughts about them.


Let’s get the dross out of the way first.  I’d heard a few things about Elfie Hopkins while it was in production in 2011 and it was obviously a vanity project.  But seeing as the vanity in question belonged to two people I liked – gruff and dependable character actor Ray Winstone and his daughter Jaime, who a few years ago was good in the Charlie Brooker-scripted zombie TV series Dead Set – I had hopes that it’d be worth watching.  I certainly didn’t expect the end product to be as irritating and vacuous as it was.


The story – a family who are secret cannibals move into a posh, rural English community that resembles a Midsomer Murders village and start chomping on their neighbours – is old hat and done with little flair or logic.  Also, it’s shocking how annoying Jaime Winstone is in the title role.  Think back to the most pretentious, conceited and full-of-bullshit kid whom you were unlucky enough to have in your class at school, the type who made you desperate to leave school, leave home, move somewhere else and hang out with people you actually liked, and you get some measure of her annoyingness here.  She’s particularly annoying when she’s (a) stoned, and (b) dealing with her geeky best male friend, whom she insists on calling ‘Parker’ (presumably a reference to Lady Penelope and Thunderbirds) and generally treats like dirt.




Jaime’s formidable Dad pops up as the village butcher halfway through, gives a scary speech (like the one Robert Shaw gave in Jaws) and disappears again.  But from that you can probably work out how the film will end.


I wasn’t impressed either by 2012’s Community, the tale of two filmmakers venturing into a rundown Shameless / Benefits Street-type housing estate where a super-powerful type of cannabis is being cultivated and sold to the locals, with unfortunate results.  (The cannabis plants also need a particular type of compost.  Guess what that is.)  The filmmakers soon find themselves under assault by hoodie-wearing youths who behave like mad dogs.  Meanwhile, the person orchestrating the mayhem proves to be a sinister transsexual.  So we have housing estates, hoodies and transsexuals being negatively stereotyped.  It’s as if a reactionary, Daily Mail-type hate-list had been transposed to celluloid.




I know that by its nature – exploring people’s fears – horror fiction and horror films run the risk of appearing reactionary.  This goes right back to the days of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which tapped into common worries about foreigners, promiscuity and ladies getting too sexually liberated.  But I find these recent hoodie-horror movies (see also Eden Lake, F and Citadel) more and more annoying.  It feels increasingly facile of such films to use contemporary fears about a broken Britain populated by feral kids, hence demonising all kids from deprived backgrounds, as the source for their monsters and villains.


My other beef with Community is that it’s not very good.


And I didn’t much like 2012’s Sawney – Flesh of Man.  This modernises the old story of Scottish cannibal Sawney Bean and his inbred family.  According to legend – or more accurately, according to English propaganda, because in medieval times England and Scotland didn’t get along and it was common for both sides to tell tales that blackened the other’s character – the Beans lived in a cave and devoured hundreds of hapless passing travellers.  Sawney – Flesh of Man would have you believe that a remnant of the Bean clan has survived in the 21st-century Scottish Highlands.  They still live in a cave and still eat human flesh.  Mind you, the cave has been updated and has all the accoutrements necessary for a modern-day cannibal / torture porn lifestyle: chairs with shackles, dissection benches, super-powerful blenders, etc.


These Beans consist of the clan-leader, played by David Hayman, who when food stocks run low nips across to Aberdeen and abducts unfortunate late-night revellers in a fake black taxicab; his brother, an outwardly respectable type who’s infiltrated the establishment, like Matt Damon did in The Departed, and is presumably doing his best to cover up the murders – being reared in a blood-drenched cave is apparently no barrier to getting through college and getting a decent job; a rabid she-monster shut away in the cave’s depths; a mute dwarf; and two hyperactive lads who tear around the Highland landscapes like a pair of wolves, wearing hoodies.  It’s indicative of the film’s lack of imagination that the best it can do for one-third of the cannibal clan is to depict them as hoodie-wearing psychos.  Again.


There are some fetching shots of the Scottish Highlands, but to be honest a director would have to be blind, and have a malfunctioning camera, to shoot a film in the Highlands and not make the place look fetching.  It might be unintentional, but Sawney – Flesh of Man gives the impression that it was filmed as a Hollywood calling-card by its director, a sort of ‘Look what I can do!’ movie made by someone with little interest in his material but who wants one day to be making Transporter films, or Fast and Furious films, or whatever.




However, Sawney – Flesh of Man at least has one thing in its favour, which is a great performance from David Hayman as the demented, evil and relentlessly Bible-quoting head cannibal.  Hayman was also in John Landis’s Burke and Hare a few years ago, so evidently he’s working his way through all of Scotland’s great horror / monster tropes.  Let’s hope someone gives him a role soon in a movie about the Loch Ness Monster.


Also striking is the scenery, this time of rural northern England, in the 2012 zombie movie Before Dawn.  In fact, I suspect this is the first zombie movie to use this rugged and beautiful part of Britain as its setting since Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue, made all the way back in 1973.   The director and star of Before Dawn is Dominic Brunt, whose day job is playing Paddy the Vet in ITV’s countryside soap opera Emmerdale.


Poor old Brunt has been criticised in some quarters for pacing Before Dawn too slowly and not putting enough zombies in it.  But actually, that’s why I liked Before Dawn.  It’s more interested in its central characters, a thirty-something couple whose marriage has fractured and is barely holding together.  They go for an away-from-it-all weekend in a remote holiday cottage and, gradually, discover that a zombie apocalypse is unfolding around them.  I thought Brunt was particularly good as the big, slightly-gormless but well-meaning husband who knows he has f**ked up badly in the past but is now desperate to make amends.  By the time he cottons onto the danger, unfortunately, his wife has received a zombie-bite and is transforming.  For the most part, little is seen of the zombies and the film’s horror comes from its character dynamics.  This is particularly so when the distraught Brunt hears that the zombies might – might – regain some of their humanity if they’re fed human flesh.


(c) Mitchell-Brunt Films


Before Dawn isn’t brilliant.  The cottage’s phone signal seems to waver on and off according to the demands of the plot at the time, and one of the few zombie-attack sequences that the film does contain is allowed to go on far too long, so that it becomes a bit daft.  However, the overall effect is impressive.  Thinking about it afterwards, I realised that if a zombie apocalypse really happened, the vast majority of people would behave in the way that Brunt does, panicked, uninformed, unable to set emotion aside when dealing with infected loved ones.  There wouldn’t be any of the head-blasting, sawn-off shotgun action typical of most zombie films.  Anyway, I wouldn’t be upset if Dominic Brunt gave up the day job and did more stuff like this.


Similarly low-key is the serial-killer movie Tony, which was made in 2009 and so doesn’t really qualify as a ‘recent’ horror film at all – but I thought I’d mention it here.  Tony is clearly inspired by real-life killer Dennis Nielson, an unremarkable, rather boring bloke who did away with some 15 people and kept their bodies in his house because he wanted somebody to talk to.  Come to think of it, someone who talks to corpses must be very boring indeed.


Tony is relentlessly depressing – in its depiction of a shabby, rundown London, its depiction of Tony’s victims (aggressive smack-heads, desperate rent-boys, a TV licence man who comes to confiscate Tony’s television and gets throttled with a cable), and its depiction of Tony himself.  Tony is not the superhuman, super-intelligent, Nietzschean serial killer beloved by Hollywood movies.  He’s a hapless, luckless squib of a human being, sporting glasses with lenses like bottle-bottoms and a greasy black smear of hair.  In fact, he’s reminiscent of a serial killer who appeared back at the beginning of British horror-movie history, the one in 1960’s Cover Girl Killer, who was played by the late, great Harry H. Corbett.





Tony has some icky moments but what’s more unsettling about it is how it manages to elicit some sympathy for its central character.  He’s bullied by the many assholes who inhabit the world around him – he may be the worst predator, but he’s certainly not the only predator on view.  Also, he shows an occasional sliver of humanity, such as when he allows the least obnoxious smackhead to go free.


Another reason why I’ll give Tony the thumbs-up is its wistful music, which is supplied by that great 1980s indie band, The The.  (The film’s director, Gerald Johnson, is apparently the brother of The The’s main-man, Matt Johnson.)  Here’s a taste of it:


Stand by for more ‘recent British horror movies’ shortly.