Great unappreciated films: The Ruling Class


(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures


It’s fair to say that the British film industry hasn’t produced anything else quite like The Ruling Class, the satirical 1972 movie starring flamboyant Anglo-Irish actor Peter O’Toole, directed by émigré Hungarian filmmaker Peter Medak and scripted by English playwright Peter Barnes, who adapted for the screen his 1968 play of the same name.  (For one thing, has any other British film starred and been directed and written by three different people who are all called ‘Peter’?)


Okay, The Ruling Class’s surreal but relentless lampooning of Britain’s social, religious and political establishments gives it some similarities to the famous film trilogy directed by Lindsay Anderson, If (1968), O Lucky Man! (1973) and Britannia Hospital (1982).  Indeed, the similarities feel still more pronounced due to the presence in The Ruling Class of Arthur Lowe and Graham Crowden, two actors who made regular appearances in Anderson’s work.


Also, the casting of Lowe, Coral Browne and Harry Andrews in The Ruling Class calls to mind Douglas Hickox’s stylised and deliciously-black comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood (1973).  Lowe, Browne and Andrews appear in the Hickox film too, playing vitriolic drama-critics who are murdered by an embittered and deranged Shakespearean actor played by Vincent Price.  The Ruling Class shares with Theatre of Blood a mad but compelling antihero and a general dose of the macabre.


But for acting gusto, for directorial flair, for a story that blends a bewildering range of genres, and for mocking humour that veers between the delightfully subtle and the bruisingly un-subtle, The Ruling Class is in, well, a class of its own.


O’Toole plays Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, who inherits his title after the 13th Earl – a short but barnstorming performance by Andrews – accidentally perishes during a disturbing sex-game involving a noose and a ballerina’s skirt.  To the relief of the late earl’s brother, a Church of England bishop played by the incomparable Alistair Sim, he didn’t commit suicide, which would of course have been sinful.


The Gurney family is dismayed to learn that young Jack is out-and-out, barkingly insane.  He believes he is Jesus Christ and sports an appropriately Christ-like beard and mane of hair.  He also wishes to bring peace and love to the earth and sleeps upright on a giant wooden cross.  Before long, the most unscrupulous of his relatives, his Uncle Charles (William Mervyn) and Aunt Claire (Browne), are plotting to get rid of him.


Charles decides to ensnare Jack using his young opera-singing mistress Grace (Carolyn Seymour).  He introduces them, calculating – correctly – that Jack will fall in love with her and marry her.  When the marriage is consummated and an heir produced, Charles can then have Jack committed.  Charles’s plans go astray, however.  Grace falls in love with the crazy but unsettlingly charming Jack and, later, Jack seems to be cured of his madness by his psychiatrist Dr Herder.  Herder is played by Michael Bryant, who for some reason does an uncannily accurate impersonation of the great Czech character actor Herbert Lom.  Indeed, so much is Bryant like Herbert Lom that during the film I assumed I was watching Lom.  I only realised it was Bryant in the role when I saw his name in the closing credits.


(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures


Herder bases his cure on the reasoning that there can only be one Jesus Christ, and if Jack can be convinced that somebody else is Christ then he’ll be cured of his delusions.  There follows a sequence in which Herder introduces Jack to a psychiatric patient called McKyle, played by Nigel Green, who believes himself to be a very different sort of Messiah: a wrathful, blood-and-thunder, take-no-prisoners, Old Testament-style one with a booming Scottish accent.  Green’s performance here is electrifying – literally electrifying, because the panic-stricken Jack sees bolts of energy shooting out of his hands.  Actually, it’s disconcerting to watch Nigel Green in a role like this if, like me, you mainly remember him for playing Colour-Sergeant Bourne in Zulu (1964), who was surely the calmest, most unflappable and most down-to-earth character in the history of the British film industry.


And Charles’s scheme to have his troublesome nephew banged away in the loony-bin ultimately fails when the court psychiatrist (Crowden) discovers to his joy that Jack is a fellow old Etonian — the film’s dig at the public-school-powered ‘old-boy network’ that’s dominated Britain and its institutions for centuries — whom he’s definitely not going to incarcerate.  The pair of them then burst into a jolly rendition of The Eton Boating Song.  Incidentally, the film is peppered with musical interludes like this one.  None of them last long enough for it to quite qualify as a musical, but they add yet another colour to its crowded palette.


Of course, as the movie audience has immediately guessed, Jack isn’t really cured of his insanity.  “I’m Jack!” he affirms a little too keenly, “I’m Jack!”  He no longer believes that he’s Jesus Christ, but he soon develops a worrying interest in Victoriana and we realise that the Jack he thinks he is now isn’t Jack Gurney.  It’s a different Jack, one who gained notoriety in the back-streets of Whitechapel in the late 1880s.  In a phantasmagorical scene, splendidly orchestrated by director Medak, we see Jack step through the wall of his mansion’s living room and into a Victorian back-street, accompanied by one of the film’s female characters – who, predictably, is soon spitted on a long sharp blade.


However, in the film’s final irony, Jack Gurney’s confusion with Jack the Ripper does him no harm whatsoever.  His Ripper-style murder is blamed on someone else – on the film’s sole working-class character, the Gurneys’ butler Tucker (Lowe).  Then, near the movie’s end, Jack takes his seat in the House of Lords and there delivers a debut speech that is a demented, psychotic hang-’em / flog-’em rant.  The speech, needless to say, is wildly popular among the House’s venerable members.  (Medak shows the assembled lords through Jack’s mind’s-eye as a horde of rotting, cobwebbed but somehow animate corpses.)  His infant son, meanwhile, is also gurgling, “I’m Jack!  I’m Jack!” which suggests that the insanity of this particular branch of the ruling class will continue for another generation at least.


With all this going on, the success or failure of The Ruling Class obviously depends on the ability of the actor in the lead role and Peter O’Toole is glorious.  He’s at the height of powers – still surfing the waves he made in 1962’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1964’s Beckett and 1968’s The Lion in Winter; and before alcohol abuse and bad movie choices, like 1979’s Caligula and 1984’s Supergirl, took their toll on his reputation.  For the entire film his character is as mad as a hatter and yet you have no difficulty believing that Carolyn Seymour’s Grace – and indeed, later, Coral Brown’s Aunt Claire – could fall for this wild-eyed, loquacious and charismatic lunatic.


But O’Toole is helped by his supporting cast.  Arthur Lowe is wonderful as the beleaguered and cantankerous butler, Tucker.  While Lowe’s career was full of delightful moments, I think the most delightful moment of all comes in The Ruling Class when he learns that the late 13th Earl of Gurney has left him 30,000 pounds in his will and he does a wee dance to celebrate.  Coral Browne, meanwhile, who was pushing 60 at the time she made the film, gives a memorable performance as a mature lady who remains sexually charged, slinky and alluring.  There’s nothing inelegant about the scene towards the end of the movie where she tries to seduce O’Toole, who’s some 20 years her junior.  (Actually, I can understand why in real life Vincent Price married Browne shortly after he’d killed her onscreen in Theatre of Blood.)


The film also showcases the talents of several actors whose careers were never quite as successful as they should have been.  Carolyn Seymour is delightful – and gorgeous – as Grace and it’s a shame that most of her subsequent work was on TV: Survivors, Space 1999, Hart to Hart, Cagney and Lacy, Magnum PI, Remington Steele, The Twilight Zone, Quantum Leap, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Voyager, Babylon 5 and ER.  William Mervyn, who was typecast playing upper-class gentlemen in the likes of The Railway Children (1970) and various Carry On films, is excellent as the main villain, Uncle Charles, and it’s unfortunate that he wasn’t given some similarly meaty roles before his death in 1976.  Also in the movie is James Villiers, playing Jack’s dim-witted but amiable cousin Dinsdale.  I was used to seeing Villiers in villainous or officious roles, like in Seth Holt’s Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1972) or the 12th Bond movie For Your Eyes Only (1982) and it was a pleasure watching him play a very different character in this.


Another talent connected with The Ruling Class that never got to blossom as much as it should have is that of Peter Medak.  In 1980, he directed The Changeling – a brave attempt at staging a subtle, old-fashioned ghost story during a period when most scary movies involved screaming teenagers, masked knife-wielding maniacs and buckets of gore – and in the early 1990s he made a couple of decent British films like The Krays (1990) and Let Him Have It (1991); but by 1998 he was directing old rubbish like Species II.  More recently, though, I’ve seen Medak credited as director of episodes of quality US TV shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Hannibal – so I hope he’s getting at least some professional satisfaction from his American tele-work.


I should add that Barnes’s original play has just been revived on the London stage with that ubiquitous Scotsman, James McAvoy, in the role of Jack.  I like McAvoy a lot and I think he’ll acquit himself admirably in the role, even if he isn’t quite in the same league as Peter O’Toole (who passed away, alas, just over a year ago).  But then again, who is?


So let’s hope that this McAvoy-helmed stage production of The Ruling Class will lead critics and audiences to rediscover the joys of the play’s cinematic version in 1972.


(c) United Artists / Embassy Pictures


Je suis Rabbie… et Charlie




This evening – January 25th – sees Burns Night, the annual bash held in honour of Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns.  At countless Burns suppers, toasts will be made and speeches delivered; poems recited in lusty, melodramatic Scots-English and ballads sung with wavering, damp-eyed maudlin-ness; and copious amounts of haggis munched and copious amounts of whisky downed.  And for hoteliers up and down the land, profits will be made – because Robert Burns, his poetry and his birthday are big business.  For example, I’ve heard reports that the hotel along the road from my Dad’s farm in the Scottish Borders is charging £125 a head for attendance at its Burns supper.


The more commercial things get, the less controversial they’re allowed to be.  So unfortunately, I doubt if many of the speakers at tonight’s multitude of Burns suppers will be dwelling on Burns’ propensity for poking fun at organised religion and getting up the noses of its most devout practitioners.


This was the man, after all, who in 1785 penned the poetic monologue Holy Willie’s Prayer, in which a supposedly pious elder in the Presbyterian Kirk addresses the Almighty.  Willie believes in the doctrine of predestination, which means he assumes his soul will be saved no matter how well or badly he behaves; whilst other souls are damned irrespective of the tone of their behaviour.  Thus he begins, “Oh Thou that in the heavens does dwell / As it pleases best Thysel’ / Sends ane to Heaven an’ ten to Hell…”


With one breath, the wretched Willie atones – or makes excuses – for his sins, which are salacious in nature.  Regarding a lady called Meg, he promises: “…I’ll ne’er lift a lawless leg / Again upon her.”  Meanwhile, an amorous encounter with another lady, ‘Leezie’s lass’, is explained by the fact that he was drunk at the time: “But Lord, that Friday I was fou / When I cam near her / Or else, Thou kens, Thy servant true / Wad never steer her.”  So it’s all okay.


With his next breath, Willie pursues a different tack.  He calls on the Lord to deliver damnation to all those he believes have wronged him.  These are his rival Gavin Hamilton, who “drinks, an’ swears, an’ plays at cartes”, and a ‘glib-tongu’d’ character called Aitken, whom he begs God to “in Thy day o’ vengeance try him / …visit them wha did employ him / And pass not in Thy mercy by them.”  He also calls on God to sort out the Presbytery of Ayr: “Lord, visit them, an’ dinna spare / For their misdeeds.”


Like a modern factual-based movie that opens with a caption saying, “All the characters in this film are real…”, the characters in Holy Willie’s Prayer were real ones too.  Holy Willie was Willie Fisher, an elder in the Kirk at Mauchline in East Ayrshire, who was engaged in a feud with the popular and respected church treasurer Gavin Hamilton.  Fisher accused him of financial irregularities, as well as a slew of ungodly acts such as tending to his garden on the Sabbath and not bothering to read the Bible on the same day.  Fisher’s case against Hamilton was heard at the nearby Presbytery of Ayr, where the latter was defended by one Robert Aitken.  The Presbytery decided in Hamilton’s favour, much to Fisher’s fury.  According to popular mythology, Fisher later came to an ignominious end – his corpse was discovered in a ditch, next to a whisky-bottle.


More digs at religion can be found in a Burns poem from the same year, The Holy Fair.  Describing the effect on a congregation wrought by a pulpit-bashing preacher called Black Russell, who rants about the terrible, unforgiving hellfire that awaits all disbelievers, he writes: “The half-asleep start up wi’ fear / An’ think they hear it roarin’ / When presently it does appear / Twas but some neibor snorin’.”


The Holy Fair features some real-life personalities too.  Burns mentions ‘Peebles, frae the water-fit’, who was the Reverend Dr William Peebles of Newton-on-Ayr.  The Reverend Peebles wasn’t amused about being name-checked in the poem.  In 1811, 15 years after Burns’ death, he wrote a work called Burnomania in which he accused the poet of “sinfulness, gross immoralities and irreligion” and his works of indulging “the worst of passions”, treating “the sacred truths of religion… with levity” and making “the song of the drunkard and the abandoned profligate.”


With organised religion depicted the way it is in Burns’ work, it’s perhaps unsurprising that in his greatest poem of all, Tam O’Shanter, the Devil literally has the best tunes.  In the middle of Tam O’Shanter, the hero creeps into the de-sanctified Alloway Kirk at night-time and spies “(w)arlocks and witches in a dance / …hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys and reels” with the music provided by Auld Nick himself, who “scre’d the pipes and gart them skirl / Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl”.  Soon “(t)he mirth and fun grew fast and furious / The piper loud and louder blew / The dancers quick and quicker flew.”


It would nice to think that at some of tonight’s Burns suppers the speakers will make reference to Burns’ brave irreverence towards organised religion, to how he mocked its hypocrisy, ridiculousness, joylessness and cruelty.  It would be even nicer to think they’ll point out how appropriate and necessary this irreverence remains today; especially given events in Paris just three weeks ago.  However, with most of the modern Burns cult so conservative, commercialised, sentimental and – worst of all – safe, I doubt if anyone will want to perplex and trouble those well-fed, well-whiskied supper-guests with comparisons to Charlie Hebdo.


A toast to the lassies



 (c) BBC



I can safely say that, until very recently, I was not looking forward to the televised leaders’ debates planned during the run-up to May’s general election.


You may remember the leaders’ debates before the last general election, back in 2010, which had three participants.  Two of these were the smooth, slick and vacuous David Cameron, Tory leader, and the similarly smooth, slick and vacuous Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader; who, if they hadn’t been cloned using genetic material scraped off Tony Blair’s bum, had certainly been grown in vats in a scientific laboratory according to the same Blair recipe.  The third was the hapless then-Prime Minister and then-Labour leader, Gordon Brown, who by that point was so rumpled and exhausted-looking that the comedian Frankie Boyle was prompted to compare Brown’s face to a testicle.


Clegg, incidentally, was acclaimed as the star of those debates.  So impressive was his performance that that bastion of left-wing thought in Britain, the Guardian newspaper, was moved to endorse his Liberal Democrat party just before the general election.  And what happened?  Clegg promptly formed a coalition with Cameron and for the five years since has kept the latter’s nasty, unemployed-bashing, immigrant-baiting party in power.  Happily, though, it looks like Clegg will pay belatedly for his sins.  All decent-minded people who voted for his party last time have been so disgusted by his crawling into bed with the Tories that the Liberal Democrats are likely to be decimated at the forthcoming election.


Do you hear that, you Liberal Democrats out there?  You’re all going to die.  Ha-ha!


Anyway, election fever is in the air again.  And so politicians, broadcasters and political pundits have been speculating about the format of the next televised leaders’ debates.  For a long time, it looked like there’d be four participants.  Those two slick, smooth, etc. Tony-bots, Cameron and Clegg, would be back of course, making excuses for the all the right-wing evil they’ve perpetrated over the last half-decade.  Representing the Labour Party this time would be the gimpy Ed Miliband, a man for whom even the very basics of human behaviour – e.g. looking normal whilst eating a bacon sandwich – do not come easily.  And as a bonus, we’d have the presence of the United Kingdom Independence Party leader, that extremist pint-swigging, fag-puffing barroom-bore bawbag, Nigel Farage.


The prospect of this filled me with no excitement whatever.  I’m sure it caused no excitement either amongst millions of other members of the British public.  All four leaders are cut from the same drearily-predictable cloth.  All are inclined towards right-wing policies; ranging from Farage’s loony far-right ones to Miliband’s right-of-centre ones.  (Miliband’s Labour Party is terrified both of losing voters to UKIP and of being portrayed by the Tories as ‘weak on the economy’; with the result that much of its modern rhetoric is far removed from the policies that the traditional ‘People’s Party’ was supposed to be about.)


All four are white, male, middle-aged, middle-to-upper class and from the southeast of England (Berkshire, Camden, Buckinghamshire, Kent).  All four are from privileged backgrounds and three of them were educated at Oxford University (Cameron, Miliband) or Cambridge University (Clegg).  What experience of working life Cameron, Miliband and Clegg have is limited to the political world and / or to its symbiotic professions (lobbying, policy research, speech-writing and, in Miliband’s case, teaching a course called What’s Left?  The Politics of Social Justice at Harvard University).


Meanwhile, Farage, with his pint, fag, etc., likes to bang on about being a man of the people.  But before and after helping to found UKIP he worked in the City, first with the brokerage firm Drexel Burnham Lambert, and then with Credit Lyonnais Rouse, Refco and Natexis Metals.  If that makes him anti-establishment…  Well, then, I’m going to be the next Pope.


However, the broadcasters have just announced – to the astonishment, bemusement and scorn of many politicians and journalists operating within the London-based ‘Westminster Bubble’ – that two of the three debates will be opened out.  There won’t be four leaders participating in these two debates, but seven.  In addition to Cameron, Milliband, Clegg and Farage, Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon – who is coincidentally the current First Minister of Scotland – and Green Party of England and Wales leader Natalie Bennett will be invited.


While there’s been a lot of discussion about how the logistics of a seven-leader debate would work, there hasn’t been – in mainstream media outlets, at least – much mention of the most appealing feature of such a set-up: the introduction of some variety to the proceedings.  Instead of an all-male line-up there’ll be almost a fifty-fifty split between males and females.  And now there’ll be people presenting a slightly different political narrative – left-wing or left-of-centre policies as well as right-wing ones.


And the stenches of privilege and political careerism will be slightly less overwhelming.  Leanne Wood was educated at Tonypandy Comprehensive School and the University of Glamorgan,  Afterwards she worked as a probation officer and later as a support worker for Cwn Cynon Women’s Aid.  Nicola Sturgeon attended another state school, Greenwood Academy, and then the University of Glasgow.  Although she served as a lawyer for a time, her beat was hardly a comfy middle-class one: she worked in Drumchapel in Glasgow.  Bennett is from Sydney and has spent years knocking around the world as a journalist, including spending a stint at the Bangkok Post.  Plus it’ll be nice to hear those well-to-do south-eastern accents interspersed with some other ones: Welsh, Scottish and Australian.


The arrival of Wood, Sturgeon and Bennett has potentially saved those leaders’ debates from tedium.  If variety is the spice of life, then the debates in their originally-touted four-leader format sounded like they’d be as spicy as a dollop of cold porridge.


Actually, they sounded like they’d be as appetising as a dollop of cold vomit.


A dark Swiss secret




For two months in the late spring and early summer of 1983 I worked on a farm in the Swiss municipality of Niederweningen, which is a 35-minute train ride out of Zurich.  I can safely say that in terms of sheer, hard, physical work, I’ve done no job like this before or since.


At the time, I was in the middle of taking a year out between the end of high school and the start of college.  As far as I remember, nobody else in my school-year did this.  Those who intended to go to college did so in the autumn of 1982, a few months after they’d left school.  Everybody around me, including my parents, seemed to think I was insane for delaying my entry to college by 16 months and spending the intervening period doing loopy things like working on a farm in rural Switzerland.  Nowadays of course, three decades later, you’re considered insane (and lacking in initiative and employability) if you enter college and you haven’t taken a year out, or a gap-year as it’s known in fashionable, modern parlance.  I was simply three decades ahead of my time and didn’t know it.


In 1982 I’d discovered an agency called Vacation Work International, which for a small fee arranged paid working holidays in Switzerland.  Switzerland wasn’t top of my list of places to visit but Vacation Work accepted people from the age of 17 upwards.  I was 17 at the time and other foreign-job agencies I’d tried had turned me down because, due to visa regulations, they could only take on people who were 18 or older.  In October 1982, Vacation Work fitted me up with a month-long job as a grape-picker in a vineyard near Lausanne in French-speaking western Switzerland.  This was a tough (and wet – those Swiss wine-producers had a very rainy grape harvest to deal with that year) but tolerable job.  So, after spending some time travelling in central Europe and working with the Community Service Volunteers in the English Midlands, I thought I’d contact Vacation Work again and give something else on their Swiss brochure a go.  This time I plumped for a two-month package where I’d work as a farmhand.


One thing this job did immediately was rid me of the assumption that everyone in Switzerland wore a smart suit and earned pots of money working in a bank.  The farming family whom Vacation Work attached me to were not wealthy; certainly not by the standards of any farmer I knew back in the UK (and my Dad is one).


Their house was plain but serviceable, but certain things I’d assumed would be a feature of any household in Western Europe, however rich or poor, such as a television set, were absent.  One basic commodity that seemed to be lacking was a decent strip of flypaper because, although the house was reasonably clean, its dining table was always plagued by swarms of big impudent flies.


Their farmstead possessed a tractor, a trailer and one or two other bits of machinery, but nothing like what even a modest British farm would be equipped with.  When the farmer, Hugo, wanted to bale some hay, he had to arrange for the use of a baler that seemed to be shared among a number of farms in the valley.  And there were no machines for spraying or weeding crops.  Those chores had to be done by someone with a heavy tank of weed-killer strapped onto their back or by someone wielding a hoe, monotonously, all day long, up and down the furrows of a field.  Similarly, such devices as front-end or back-end loaders were considered an unaffordable luxury – for shifting things like dung or loose hay, the shovel and the pitchfork were the order of the day.  During my two months there, such basic tools were rarely out of my hands.


My abiding memory from those two months is of the daily schedule.  Hugo would usually come knocking at my door at 5.30 in the morning and after a hurried breakfast both of us would be outside, ready for action, at 6.00.  We’d have an hour’s break at lunchtime.  We’d spend the first half of that lunch-hour eating and then Hugo would give me a pitying look and suggest, “Jan…”  – neither Hugo nor his family could ever get their tongues around the correct /ǝın/ pronunciation of my name – “…eine halbe Stunde.”  During this free half-hour, I’d usually doze off in my room and wake up 20 or 25 minutes later with a headache and a putrid taste in my mouth that suggested I’d just been sucking a dead frog.


At some point in the early evening there’d be another meal, but the work usually continued until 8.00 or 9.00 PM.  During a busy period, like when we were hay-making, we didn’t clock off until after 10.00.  This was the routine six days a week.  Only Sundays were free.  I calculated I must be doing 70 to 80 hours of physical labour each week.  I’d grown up on a farm, and indeed the previous year I’d spent a busy summer working on my uncle’s farm in Ireland.  But I hadn’t done anything on the scale of this.


That said, I did quite enjoy myself.  I got on well with Hugo and his family were civil to me, although because I was equipped only with the basic German I’d learnt at school and as they spoke the robust – some would say unruly – dialect of German known as Schweizerdeutsch, communication was often difficult.  At the end of 1983, I received a nice Christmas card and letter from Hugo and his family, which had been written in English by one of their children who was learning the language as school.  It wasn’t very comprehensible and I wondered if I’d sounded as strange to them when I’d spoken German.


The family were also kind enough at the end of my two-month service to present me with a going-away gift: a bottle of illicitly-homemade kirsche.  This bottle of kirsche lasted for the next two years, into 1985.  It was so strong that it could be supped only in minute quantities.  A couple of times I sneakily gave glasses of it to college acquaintances who liked to boast about their drinking prowess and, soon after, enjoyed the spectacle of them falling unconscious.


Pleasant too was the scenery at Niederweningen.  It wasn’t mountainous but, half-farmed, half forested, it was gorgeous in a sedate, pastoral way.  And I formed a friendship with another Vacation Work person who’d been assigned to a neighbouring farm, Rebecca Macnaughton – thanks to the miracle of the Internet, we’ve kept in touch to this very day.  Actually, no matter how long and how hard I worked, it never seemed to stop me from accompanying my Vacation Work colleague down the road to the local pub for a beer after I’d finally finished for the day.  One evening, we tried exploring a different road and happened across a small restaurant that was run, somewhat unexpectedly, by a well-travelled and very interesting Sri Lankan guy.  He described how, previously, he’d worked in Zurich with some young Swiss heroin addicts.  And suddenly another of my assumptions about Switzerland, about how it was a bastion of order, decency and law-abidingness, had been turned on its head.


One other positive thing about the experience was how physically fit I felt afterwards.  Nowadays, with my body wracked by arthritic aches and pains and my waistline fighting a losing battle against a beer-belly, I look at photographs taken of me after I’d arrived home and can hardly believe how athletic I looked then.  Indeed, one of the things I did after that was to spend a fortnight tramping around the Lake District and I seem to remember bounding about those Cumbrian fells like a mountain gazelle.


For my Swiss farm-work I was paid a modest wage, but I was never sure if that wage came out of Hugo’s pocket or if it was provided under some Swiss farming subsidy scheme.  From what I could gather, the people provided by Vacation Work International were just one input in a system that saw lots of foreign people working cheaply on those modest-sized, modest-resourced farms.  Hugo told me how one farmhand who’d worked for him previously was an African bloke.  He’d also employed someone, at some point, from the Faroes Islands – Hugo and the Faroese guy had got along so well that the latter still phoned him for a chat from time to time, from his home in the North Atlantic.  Mind you, the annual presence of foreign farmhands didn’t seem to improve Hugo or his neighbours’ knowledge of the outside world.  I recall one lunchtime having an argument with him and one of his neighbours about where Albania was – I was the only one who maintained that it was in Europe.  Eventually, one of Hugo’s kids’ school atlases was dug out and consulted and, yes, it transpired that I was correct.


I’ve written nostalgically about my days on a Swiss farm, but I have to admit that what rekindled my memories of them and inspired me to write this blog-entry was something altogether darker.  Whilst browsing through the online back-pages of the BBC News website magazine, I happened across the following article about a phenomenon that the Swiss authorities have until recently kept quiet about.  The article is called SWITZERLAND’S SHAME – THE CHILDREN USED AS CHEAP FARM LABOUR and is written by Kavita Puri.


This describes the old Swiss practice of taking orphaned children, or the children of unmarried parents, or children from poor backgrounds, and using them as ‘contract children’; as ultra-cheap labour, often on farms, where they were vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.  Part of the reason for this was simple economics – prior to World War II Switzerland wasn’t a wealthy country and a low-costing workforce for its agricultural sector had to be found somewhere.  However, it was driven too by an unforgiving attitude towards poverty.  As one historian explains: “It was like a kind of punishment.  Being poor was not recognised as a social problem, it was individual failure.”


The phenomenon of contract children – which over the decades is believed to have involved hundreds of thousands of Swiss youngsters – began in the 1850s and continued for the next century.  It didn’t peter out until the 1960s and 1970s, when “farming became mechanised” and “the need for child labour vanished.”  Also, “(w)omen got the vote in 1971 and attitudes towards the poor and single mothers moved on.”  Even so, Puri’s article mentions one case of agricultural child labour that occurred as late as 1979 – just four years before I arrived there for my weekly 70-to-80 hours of toil.  What a sobering thought.


Mount Lavinia



Since arriving in Sri Lanka in May last year, I have tried to avoid posting blog-entries that depict the place as a sun-drenched island paradise: entries that peddle the image of it that the country’s tourist authorities peddle.  Yes, parts of Sri Lanka are gorgeous.  But I’ve felt a little too aware of the country’s recent turbulent history – it was wracked by a civil war that lasted for a quarter-century and left between 60,000 and 100,000 people dead, including one Sri Lankan president (Ranasinghe Premadasa) and one Indian prime minister (Rajiv Gandhi) – to want to promote it as some blandly-dreamy tourist magnet.


However, just over a week ago, a general election took place and it went off without trouble.  Power was transferred with surprising peacefulness from Mahinda Rajapaksa, the country’s strongman leader of the past decade, to new leader Maithripala Sirisena (who’d served as Rajapaksa’s Minister of Agriculture and then Health).  On top of this unexpected show of political stability and maturity, Pope Francis then arrived in Sri Lanka and told everyone how wonderful they were.  So with the country’s credit deservedly high at the moment, I’ve decided to post an entry that does portray the place as a sun-drenched island paradise.


Besides, at the moment, I’m back in Scotland and, looking out of my window, all I can see is a white, wintry, slushy, sleety hellhole.   And the BBC weather forecast assures me that temperatures in my locality tonight will be around the minus 13 mark.  So I’m more than ready to indulge in some sun-drenched-island-paradise rhetoric.


Mount Lavinia is a district of Colombo that’s on my doorstep.  It’s just a few minutes’ ride away by trishaw, south along Galle Road.  It has a reputation for being among the city’s more well-to-do areas and, indeed, is home to St Thomas’ College, one of Colombo’s most prestigious schools.  And once you get away from the smoky, noisy and congested artery that is Galle Road, the area becomes surprisingly tranquil – its ambience feels more like that of the sleepy countryside than a city suburb.  In particular, the temples in this district are oases of calm, quiet and charm.



Also, Mount Lavinia comes with a precious commodity in Colombo – it has a ‘Golden Mile’ of beaches and is regarded as the city’s very own seaside resort.  Though oddly, the area’s Sinhalese name, Galkissa, is derived from an old word ‘kissa’ that means ‘rock’ rather than ‘sand’.


The place’s showcase building is the Mount Lavinia Hotel at Number 100, Hotel Road, which has 275 rooms and a history that stretches back more than 200 years.  It was originally constructed as a home for Sir Thomas Maitland, who served as British Governor of Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, from 1805 to 1811.  Nicknamed ‘King Tom’, Maitland was obviously also something of a tomcat; for after his arrival on the island he wasted no time in falling in love with a half-Portuguese, half-Sinhalese woman called Lovina Aponsuwa, who was the lead performer in her father’s dance-troupe.  According to the blurb on the Mount Lavinia Hotel website, she possessed ‘long flowing jet black tresses’ and ‘large, expressive, hazel brown eyes.’



To avoid scandalising his fellow Britons on the island – and indeed to avoid scandalising the Sinhalese locals, because Lovina belonged to the Rodiya community, the Sinhalese’s lowest caste – Maitland sneakily had his new residence built with a secret tunnel that ran from its wine cellar to a disused well near Lovina’s father’s house.  During the next six years, they used this tunnel as a way to carry out their lovers’ trysts, away from the disapproving eyes of their British and Ceylonese contemporaries.


Ill-health eventually forced Maitland to leave Sri Lanka, but he seems to have held Lovina in genuine affection – their relationship wasn’t just based on expediency and lust.  As well as naming his mansion and its surroundings Mount Lavinia, which was supposedly a veiled sign of his love for her, he also gifted her with a large area of land in the village of Attidiya, a little way further east.  And until the end of his days – he died in Malta in 1824 – Maitland remained a bachelor.  The legendary tunnel, meanwhile, is supposed to have been sealed in 1920.


Maitland’s mansion didn’t become a hotel until 1947.  Before then, as well as serving as a governor’s residence, it saw duty during World War II as a military hospital.  It has also served as a film set – some scenes for The Bridge on the River Kwai were filmed there in the mid-1950s.



With a lobby area that’s embroidered with strips of foliage and artificial waterfalls, the Mount Lavinia Hotel is a grand and impressive place to explore.  However, I suspect that for many residents its main attraction is the glorious stretch of beach that it overlooks – and I use the adjective ‘glorious’ to describe it even though I’m not by any means a ‘beach person’.  A panorama of wonderfully clean sand, glassy-blue waves, palm trees and boats, it’s easy to sit there and forget that central Colombo is just a couple of miles up the coast.



And in the grass-roofed hut that houses the hotel’s beach-side bar and restaurant, you’ll be entertained by some predictably tame, predictably cute and predictably well-fed Sri Lankan squirrels.



Incidentally, on the day that I visited it, posters had been put up to advertise a forthcoming attraction in the Mount Lavinia Hotel.  Being held there soon was an immersive and improvised comedy show that’s based on the famous 1970s British TV sitcom, Fawlty Towers.  This show was called The Fawlty Towers Dining Experience.  I find it ironic that a building that once symbolised the British Empire at its most powerful is now hosting displays of classic, self-mocking British comic stupidity.  Then again, I’m more comfortable with the world knowing us for our self-deprecating ridiculousness than for our imperialist might and ruthlessness.


The man who made The Avengers assemble


(c) The Guardian


Barely had I finished writing a tribute to the recently-deceased actor Rod Taylor than I read about the death of writer Brian Clemens.  So before I post anything else on this blog, here is yet another eulogy.


Clemens was a TV and film writer who was never short of ideas and was astonishingly prolific.  He’ll be remembered primarily for being the main creative force behind The Avengers.  No, I’m not talking about the American comic-book and movie franchise about the group of superheroes who include Captain America, Thor, Ironman and the Incredible Hulk.  I’m talking instead about the long-running British TV show featuring an altogether cooler group of superheroes: Dr David Keel, Cathy Gale, Emma Peel, Tara King, Mother, Purdey, Mike Gambit and their leader, the debonair, bowler-hatted, brolly-wielding John Steed (played by the impeccable Patrick Macnee).


What started out as a conventional action / thriller show with Macnee and Ian Hendry’s Dr Keel as a pair of crime-fighters gradually mutated, under Clemens’ guidance, into a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms.  It became determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.  It was also funny, silly, fantastical, baroque, occasionally gothic and even a little kinky.  This was no more so than in the mid-1960s when The Avengers had begun to be broadcast in colour and Macnee was now partnered by Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel.  (The kinkiness factor was dialled up to 11 in the episode A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)


(c) ABC / ITV / Thames


The show’s cocktail of humour, espionage, science fiction, fantasy and surrealism has been imitated from time to time – including by the attempted Hollywood film adaptation of it in 1998 starring Ralph Fiennes as Steed, Uma Thurman as Emma Peel and Jim Broadbent as Mother, which Clemens had nothing to do with and which he, quite rightly, detested.  However, it’s never been equalled.  Indeed, I don’t think anything else has come remotely close to equalling it


My all-time favourite Avengers episode is The Superlative Seven, which like so many others was scripted by Clemens.  It sees Steed invited to a mysterious fancy dress party – Steed turns up dressed as Napoleon – which takes place on an equally mysterious remote-controlled jet plane and is attended by six other guests with remarkable skills and abilities: one is a champion bullfighter, another is a first-class swordsman and so on.  The plane eventually delivers its passengers to a spooky, fogbound and seemingly deserted island where the party-guests start to be murdered one by one, Agatha Christie style; and Clemens even manages to work in a sub-plot about a sect of superhuman assassins.  On top of everything else, The Superlative Seven features a guest cast that includes Charlotte Rampling, Donald Sutherland and Brian Blessed.  Wow!


In the early 1970s, after The Avengers had finished its original run, Clemens worked in films.  With Terry Nation, he wrote the psychological thriller And Soon the Darkness about two English girls, played by Pamela Franklin and Michele Dotrice, being stalked by a killer whilst on a cycling trip across rural France.  He also wrote Blind Terror, in which another girl, played by Mia Farrow, is stalked by another killer in another rural setting, this time the English countryside.  The twist in Blind Terror is that Farrow is sightless and during its opening scenes the film is horridly clammy whilst Farrow potters around in the house of some relatives she’s staying with, unaware that those relatives have all been murdered; and the culprit isn’t far away, either.


In 1971 Clemens also wrote the script for Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, an inventive reworking of the story by Robert Louis Stevenson – as its title suggests, its cheekiest innovation is to have Dr Jekyll undergoing not only a personality-change but also a sex-change when he drinks his famous potion.  And three years later Clemens tried his hand at directing as well as writing.  For Hammer Films, he made the ahead-of-its-time Captain Kronos Vampire Hunter, which has as its vampire-killing hero not some sanctimonious, dark-clad, rosary-bead-clutching priest or doctor – as had been the norm up until then – but a swashbuckling mercenary-for-hire played by Horst Janson.  Janson carries a samurai sword, smokes pot and has as his sidekicks a witty hunchback (John Cater) and a saucy babe (Caroline Munro) whom he’s freed from the stocks – she was imprisoned there for dancing on a Sunday.  I’ve read that when a teenaged Peter Jackson started experimenting with homemade movies in New Zealand in the late 1970s, one thing he attempted was a Super8 version of Captain Kronos.


(c) Hammer Films 


In the mid-1970s, Clemens and his long-term producing partner Albert Fennell re-launched The Avengers as The New Avengers, which partnered Macnee with Gareth Hunt and Joanna Lumley.  The show had less impact than its predecessor and it was plagued by money problems – Clemens and Fennell had to recruit French and Canadian financial backers, with the result that later episodes of this most British of shows were set in such unlikely places as Paris and Toronto.  Still, I’m highly partial to such New Avengers episodes as The Eagle’s Nest, House of Cards and Last of the Cybernauts.  Also, the show made an icon out of Joanna Lumley, playing the high-kicking ballerina / martial-arts expert Purdey.  And the reworking of the original Avengers theme that composer Laurie Johnson did for The New Avengers is one of the most stirring TV theme-tunes ever.


(c) The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises Ltd


What had been planned as a third season of The New Avengers in 1977 eventually morphed into a very different show – the supposedly hard-boiled spy / action series The Professionals.  With The Professionals Clemens and Fennell had another big hit on their hands; but despite the presence of actors as good as Gordon Jackson and Martin Shaw, and despite another superior (and this time rather jazzy) theme tune from Laurie Johnson, I’ve never had much time for it.  Even at the age of 14 or 15, it seemed to me a bit too macho, right-wing and thick-headed.  Come to think of it, The Professionals was much in keeping with the mood of those late 1970s / early 1980s times in Britain.


For me, a better example of Clemens’ TV work was the anthology series Thriller, which he’d masterminded in the early 1970s.  For a while, Thriller was an important staple of the Saturday-evening TV schedules – broadcast at 9.00 PM, just after the watershed, there was something grim and ominous about it for a kid like myself.  Only occasionally did Thriller stray into the realm of the supernatural and try to be deliberately frightening, but even the crime stories that made up the bulk of its content seemed unrelentingly bleak and disturbing.  (Typical of this approach was the episode I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill, about a witness to a murder who gets trapped in an office building overnight with the murderer.)  Thriller was yet more evidence of Clemens’ endless knack for churning out irresistible and ingenious plotlines.


Responsible for many memorably-flamboyant moments in an artistic medium, television, which traditionally hasn’t been noted for its flamboyance, Brian Clemens died last Saturday at the age of 83.  He was, by the way, a descendant of one Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, which is why he named his two sons Samuel Joshua Twain Clemens and George Langhorne Clemens.


(c) ABC / ITV / Thames


The Time Traveller checks out


(c) MGM


Another day and the news that yet another actor or actress whom I was a fan of during my formative years has passed away.  This blog is in danger of becoming little more than a string of obituaries.


This time the deceased was the Australian actor Rod Taylor, who last Wednesday left the building at the age of 84 – his death, unsurprisingly, received little coverage at the time thanks to the media’s attention being focused on events in Paris.  Tall, solid, square-jawed and projecting an image of complete dependability, Taylor starred in three movies that had a big impact on me when I was a kid.


Firstly, there was his performance as the Time Traveller who travels to the year 802,701 AD in the 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, directed and produced by the celebrated sci-fi-movie impresario George Pal.  Wells’ original story is a gloomy, melancholy and understated affair but Pal predictably gave it the full Hollywood treatment.  Taylor plays a time-travelling beefsteak who’s handy with his fists and takes no shit from anyone, least of all from that future race of cannibalistic, subterranean ghouls, the Morlocks.  Also, he wastes no time in trying to teach the wimpy, wishy-washy Eloi – the humanoid race living on the surface whom the Morlocks use as livestock – the American way, which is that they shouldn’t take any shit from anyone either.


But despite Pal’s simplifications I loved – and still love – The Time Machine.  Most of all, I adore the sequence where Taylor tries out his ornate time-travelling device, which looks like a cross between a mass of clock innards and Santa Claus’s sleigh.  Viewed today, the time-lapse photography and stop-motion-animation special effects by Gene Warren and Tim Barr seem almost as antiquated as Taylor’s time machine, but they remain immensely charming.  I particularly like how the female mannequin in the clothes shop across the street from Taylor’s laboratory dons costume after costume while Taylor fast-forwards through the years and fashions change in the blink of an eye.


Actually, thinking about it, the time-travelling section of The Time Machine retains some of the melancholia and pessimism of Wells’ original vision.  First, when Taylor stops off in 1917, he learns of the fate that’s befallen his dear and loyal friend David Filby (played by Alan Young, who later became the cartoon voice of Scrooge McDuck and is still on the go at the age of 95); a fate that befell countless men at the time.  And then, when he reaches 1966, he sees civilisation succumb to a cataclysmic nuclear war.  Never mind the fact that when I first saw the film, 1966 had already been and gone with no outbreak of nuclear war – this bit chilled me to the bone.  In fact, it still chills me now.


Three years later, Rod Taylor appeared in a very different sort of fantasy film, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, which for my money is still the scariest movie in which Mother Nature suddenly turns around and starts giving humanity hell.  Here, the agents of Mother Nature’s revenge are the titular birds – lots of them, including seagulls, sparrows, crows and ravens.  Hitchcock wisely follows the example of the material on which the film is based, Daphne Du Maurier’s short story of the same name from 1952, and offers no explanation for why the birds have suddenly started to attack people en masse.


(c) Universal Pictures


The film is more expansive than Du Maurier’s low-key, Cornish-set original – it opens out the story to allow for a series of tense set-pieces that demonstrate how far ahead of his time Hitchcock was – but it retains the same sense of claustrophobia and doom.  Even the presence of Taylor in the film doesn’t make you feel any more hopeful at the end.  With his solidness and reliability, Taylor might be a useful guy to have on your side when the feathered world starts pecking human civilisation to pieces, but even he is unlikely to tip the balance in your favour.


Finally, Taylor turned up in Jack Cardiff’s 1968 African-set action movie The Mercenaries, which was based on a book by – who else? – Wilbur Smith.  When I saw this on TV in the 1970s, I was in my early teens and I decided that it was surely the grittiest and most realistic combat movie I’d ever seen.  No doubt I felt this way because it was the first combat movie I’d seen that had a (relatively) contemporary setting and didn’t take place during World War II.  Thus, it had an immediacy that those WW2 movies didn’t have.  Mind you, the film did also feature Peter Carsten, playing a mercenary who’d served with the Nazis a quarter-century earlier and was, predictably, a thoroughly bad egg.  Also in the film was Yvette Mimieux (who’d starred alongside Taylor in The Time Machine), Jim Brown and that dear old British acting cove Kenneth More, playing an alcoholic doctor who got killed off two-thirds of the way through.  Phew!  Hardcore!


Probably if I saw The Mercenaries now, it would seem no more gritty or realistic than 1978’s The Wild Geese, that notorious turkey (or goose) of a movie wherein Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris play a trio of loveable former-public-schoolboy mercenaries leading a team to rescue a saintly Mandela-like politician from a central African prison.  Then again, I’ve read that both Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese consider The Mercenaries to be one of the best action movies ever, so maybe it would hold up to a viewing today.  (And no doubt that’s why Tarantino lured Taylor, then in his late 70s, out of retirement in 2009 and got him to play Winston Churchill in Inglourious Basterds.)


One thing that definitely is brilliant about The Mercenaries, though, is its poster-work by Frank McGrath.  In my mind, when it comes to action movies, there was no better poster-artist than McGrath.  And although McGrath did sterling work on posters for other 1960s action classics like The Great Escape (1963) and Where Eagles Dare (1968), nothing quite compares with the bravura of what he came up with for The Mercenaries, depicting Taylor, Mimieux and Brown perched on top of a crazily-tilting train carriage while other carriages explode, planes attack and villains drop to their doom down the sides of a vertiginously-high bridge.


(c) MGM


Anyhow, the next time that The Time Machine appears on television – and it invariably does during the Christmas / New Year season, one morning on a TV channel somewhere – that sequence where the Time Traveller ventures forth into the future will feel a wee bit more sombre now that Rod Taylor is no longer with us.


Imaginary minced oaths


(c) NBC


A few weeks ago, somehow, I found myself talking to a group of Sri Lankan people about a feature of the English language that’s often heard but rarely discussed: the minced oath.


A minced oath is a non-offensive utterance that’s substituted for an offensive one.  It’s sometimes an innocuous word with an innocuous meaning that happens to sound like the thing it’s replacing.  For example, rather that shout ‘Shit!’ when you swing a hammer, miss the top of the nail you’re aiming for and squash your finger instead, you shout ‘Sugar!’  Or instead of shouting ‘Damn!’, you shout ‘Dash!’  Sometimes, though, the minced oath is a word that only exists as a minced oath – like the word ‘heck’, used as a replacement for ‘hell’, as in “What the heck is going on?”


Often, minced oaths have been used so frequently and for so long that they’ve acquired their own distinct personalities.  Is anyone who comes out with the mild exclamation ‘Gosh!’ aware that they’re using it as a substitute for ‘God!’?


For my money, the King of Minced Oaths was the great American character actor Slim Pickens, who became typecast playing brawny, not-very-bright cowboys in Western movies.  I seem to remember Pickens in many an old Western spluttering, in a broad Texan accent, “Aw, shoot and darn it, you doggone son-of-a-gun!”  (Which in its X-rated version would be, “Aw, shit and damn it, you goddamned son-of-a-bitch!”)


But I suspect that many minced oaths are now living on borrowed time because – in the UK at least – we seem to inhabit a social and linguistic environment where it’s increasingly okay to use the real thing.  People seem to swear more commonly and openly than they used to.  At the same time, most of the old minced oaths that were once acceptable substitutes for swear words sound a bit lame now.  Any lad using ‘Dash!’ or ‘Gosh!’ in a modern playground would probably be viewed by his peers as something of a pansy.  (If they could figure out what he was talking about in the first place.)


The phenomenon of swearing puts writers of TV and radio drama (and historically of literature too) in a quandary.  What do they do when they want to accurately depict the real world – in whose homes, workplaces and schools many folk now swear non-stop, rather than shilly-shally around with minced oaths?  Do they bite the bullet and use real swear words, at the risk of offending those many viewers and listeners (and historically, readers) who still find such language offensive?  Or should they avoid using words that may cause offence and pretend that all people speak like Sunday-school teachers?


One solution has been to invent your own swear words, which will express the heated emotions your characters are feeling without upsetting people who object to bad language – in other words, to use imaginary minced oaths.  To illustrate this, I will now give you half-a-dozen of my favourite made-up swear words that have already been tried and tested in TV, films and literature and, presumably, are acceptable for use in polite company.


(c) The Daily Telegraph



An invented substitute for the F-word, ‘fug’ appeared in the 1948 World War II novel The Naked and the Dead, written by the late, great American writer Norman Mailer.  Warned by his publishers that the dialogue of his soldier-characters couldn’t be too realistic – even though in the real world, hard-pressed soldiers in a combat zone would be spewing the F-word endlessly – Mailer ended up having them say things like ‘Fug you!’ and ‘Fugging hell!’


It must have stuck in Mailer’s craw – and Mailer had a big craw for things to get stuck in – when, later, he was introduced to the celebrated writer and wit Dorothy Parker and she exclaimed, “So you’re the man who can’t spell f*ck!”



In 1970s British TV sitcoms nobody swore.  In Her Majesty’s Prison Service, however, everybody swore.  Thus, writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais had a dilemma when they devised their classic 1970s prison-set sitcom Porridge – which they solved by having their characters spout imaginary swear words.  “Naff off, you nerk!” Norman Stanley Fletcher, the convict hero of Porridge played by Ronnie Barker, would often snap at irritating prison warders and fellow cons.


‘Naff’ and ‘nerk’ soon became popular in 1970s school playgrounds, as little children believed they were real words of abuse.  (I know I did.)  They were also adopted by another group with an uncertain grasp of reality, the Royal Family.  On one famous occasion, prying photographers were bluntly told to “Naff off” by Princess Anne.



Actually, ‘feck’ is a genuine minced oath in the Irish-English dialect.  However, it became famous in Britain in the 1990s when it was used as a non-offensive substitute for ‘f*ck’ in Father Ted, the much-loved sitcom about three less-than-devout priests assigned to a backward Irish island.  Indeed, many people now probably believe that ‘feck’ was invented by Father Ted’s creators, Graham Linehan and Arthur Matthews.


(c) Hat Trick Productions / Channel 4 


Despite its innocuousness, the word caused controversy for B*witched, the briefly popular, river-dancing Irish girl-band managed by Louis Walsh.  Interviewed on TV, one B*witched-member exclaimed “Feck off!” and provoked complaints from hard-of-hearing viewers who thought she’d said something else.



Doctor Evil, the super-villain in Mike Myers’ Austin Powers spoof-spy movies, was clearly a linguistic prude.  Even in his foulest moods, he unfailingly eschewed the F-word and used the non-rude ‘frick’ instead.


Actually, ‘frick’ is like ‘feck’.  Although thanks to the Myers movies many people assume it’s an invented minced oath, it has its roots in real, dialectic English.  According to the online Urban Dictionary, it comes from Southern and Midwestern American English and dates back to the 1930s.  I’ve even read claims that ‘frick’ is derived from the surname of the industrialist and chairman of the Carnegie Steel Corporation Henry Clay Frick who, because of his brutal approach to labour relations in the late 19th century, was once dubbed ‘the most hated man in America’.


Incidentally, although Doctor Evil was a paragon of good verbal manners, Myers messed up elsewhere on the salty-language front.  Misjudging the naughtiness of a certain British colloquialism – thinking it was purely a funny word when some people found it genuinely distasteful – he called the second Austin Powers movie The Spy Who Shagged Me.



Language changes with the passage of time, so science fiction writers have often assumed that the future will see new rude words.  Some examples of these include ‘Frak!’ (from the TV sci-fi show Battlestar Galactica), ‘Frell!’ (from another TV show, Farscape) and ‘Drokk!’ (a favourite of the imposing Judge Dredd in the sci-fi comic 2000AD).


However, the supreme futuristic swear word is ‘smeg’, used by the characters of TV sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf.  Writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor have always insisted that ‘smeg’ was the product of their imaginations and wasn’t inspired by smegma, possibly the least appealing secretion produced by the male human body.  But somehow, I don’t believe them.




Keep calm and carry on being pains in the arse


(c) The Daily Telegraph


The French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was a pain in the arse.  I’m sure the magazine’s staff – both those who survived the horrific terrorist attack against its office in Paris yesterday and those who perished during it – would not take this description as an insult.  Rather, they’d see it as a badge of honour.


I found myself cursing Charlie Hebdo and all who worked for it as a pain in the arse back in September 2012, while I was living in Tunisia.  That month, outrage among Islamic extremists at the film Innocence of Muslims had caused a mob to attack the American Embassy (and the neighbouring International School) on the northern edge of Tunis.  And hardly had that happened when Charlie Hebdo decided to pour fuel on the fire by publishing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad naked.  This led to several tense days in Tunis, with people fearing more religious-extremist violence against Westerners and Western institutions.  I remember the French Embassy on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the city centre being cordoned off by military and police vehicles and being cocooned in barbed wire.  Nothing happened as a result of those cartoons, though.  Ordinary Tunisians seemed so fed up and embarrassed by what’d happened at the American Embassy that it was clear they didn’t want further violence perpetrated in the name of their religion.


Still, while I trudged furtively through the streets of Tunis during those uncomfortable days, I thought to myself: “Charlie Hebdo.  What a bloody pain in the arse.”


But the discomfort and insecurity I felt then was a price that had to be paid.  Having freedom of thought and freedom of speech does not come without sacifices.  And it is the duty of satirists everywhere – and indeed, of creative and artistic and imaginative people everywhere – to be pains in the arse.  They’re obliged to generate pains in the arses of all systems of authority and ideology that make people oppressed, fearful and paranoid; that set people at each other’s throats; that shut down critical thinking; and that strip the human soul of its joie de vivre.  And, yes, among such systems I include all types of organised religion.


To use a less vulgar metaphor — it’s their job to rattle cages, even if in doing so they upset and enrage the denizens of those cages.  Because any political, religious or cultural system that places people, or places people’s minds, inside cages deserves to be rattled, and mocked, and ridiculed.


No wonder that the late, great Irish comedian Dave Allen got death threats from people purporting to be members of the IRA when, in the 1970s, he poured scorn on Mother Ireland and her too-close-for-comfort relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.  Or that thanks to his TV show Al Bernameg Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef made bitter enemies both of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government and of the military junta that usurped it.  Or that Pussy Riot’s irreverent performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in February 2012 ruffled the feathers both of the Russian Orthodox Church and of its good friend, Vladimir Putin.  Or that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un got his knickers in a twist recently over the Hollywood political-comedy movie The Interview.


And if the agents of political, religious and cultural repression got their way, and all the Charlie Hebdos of the world were done away with, the result would probably be this:




But it would also be nice if, in the midst of their outrage at the assault on freedom of opinion, speech and expression represented by yesterday’s carnage at the Charlie Hebdo office, Western leaders took it upon themselves to withdraw support from all regimes and organisations who, irrespective of ideology, oppress anyone who uses humour to ridicule or uses art to generally question the status quo.  And it would be nice too if the West now stopped sucking up to those oil-rich states in the Gulf who, over the decades, have quietly exported, financed and supported the fanatical and intolerant brand of Islam whose armed adherents were responsible for the Charlie Hedbo atrocity.


It would be nice, but it’s not terribly likely to happen.


Party-pooper: book review / Gerald’s Party, by Robert Coover


(c) Penguin


You know you’re in trouble with a novel when, thirty pages in, you find yourself jotting down information in a notebook and keeping the notebook open on the table-top beside the novel so that you can stay abreast of what’s going on.  The opening pages of Robert Coover’s 1986 novel Gerald’s Party have so many characters weaving through them that I filled two notebook-pages with their names and details to remind me who they were while I continued reading: Roger, Alison, Alison’s husband, Vic, Dolph, Naomi, Charley, Knud, Kitty, Dickie, Yvonne, Woody, Ginger, Patrick, Tania, Sally Ann, Jim, Eileen, Mr and Mrs Draper, Mavis, Anatole, Inspector Pardew, Howard, Janny, Michelle, Janice, Bob, Fred, Daffie and Big Louise.


And that list doesn’t include Gerald or his wife, who at their house are hosting the party of the book’s title.  Or their small, volatile son Mark or Gerald’s “stubborn, taciturn” mother-in-law upstairs.  Or Ros, the actress whose corpse is discovered on Gerald’s living-room floor on the first page and whose murder sets the story in motion.


For yes, technically, Gerald’s Party is a murder-mystery story.  Ros was a starlet of considerable physical attractiveness who seems to have bonded at some time or other with half the men at Gerald’s party – Gerald included.  Her attractiveness wasn’t matched by her acting ability, though.  From what we hear of her roles, her CV was hardly spectacular.  It includes such gems as a stage play called Lot’s Wife, where she played the title character in “a kind of Dionysian version of the Bible story in which, after being turned to salt and abandoned by Lot, she was supposed to get set upon by ecstatic Sodomites, stripped, stroked, licked from top to bottom, and quite literally re-impregnated with life”; and a sci-fi movie called Invasion of the Panty Snarfers.


But Gerald’s Party isn’t simply a highbrow pastiche of a supposedly lowbrow genre penned by an American literary big-shot – Coover is a novelist, short-story writer and playwright who won the William Faulkner Foundation Award in 1967 and the Rea Award for the Short Story in 1987 and who has some thirty novels, novellas, plays and collections under his belt.  It isn’t Coover’s equivalent of, say, Norman Mailer’s Tough Guys Don’t Dance.  There’s not one realistic bone — not even a bone of attempted realistic-ness — in the book’s body.  It’s very much a work of satiric fantasy.


Even while the police show up at the house and begin their investigations, the partygoers in Gerald’s Party merrily bang on with the party, growing evermore inebriated, debauched, pretentious and pathetic.  The trio of investigating policemen – a cryptic inspector and two trigger-happy uniformed cops – become increasingly sinister, if not Kafka-esque, in their behaviour.  And with the party spiralling out of control and the police investigation spawning violence and destruction, Gerald’s house gets trashed.  Meanwhile, in parallel, poor Ros’s body is subjected to increasing indignities and humiliations: it’s stripped, poked, prodded, pierced, dragged around, dumped, messily wrapped in plastic film and encased in plaster.


Later, Ros’s old theatrical and cinematic buddies learn of her death and show up at the party determined to turn the event into a dramatic spectacle and artistic statement.  “(W)e got Ros playing herself,” says one, “…we use the corpse, I mean – but the rest of the cast interacts with it like she’s alive, you dig?”  As a result, while Gerald’s house is transformed into a makeshift theatre, it’s wrecked even more and the story begins to feel like a chaotic modern updating of Edgar Allan Poe’s Masque of the Red Death.


The idea of a party experiencing a murder that most of the partygoers aren’t desperately bothered about seems a reasonable metaphor for the vacuity and decadence of modern, moneyed and supposedly-sophisticated society.  Indeed, the story doesn’t feel a million miles removed from something that J.G. Ballard would have written.  But alas, as I’ve said at the start of this review, I found Gerald’s Party hard going.  This isn’t just because of the many characters featured.  Coover’s technique for representing a party, with an endless array of people drifting in and out of view and conversations drifting in and out of earshot, means that page after page of the book consists of a drizzle of fragmented and mashed-together dialogues offering snatches of wit, gossip, slander or attempted profundity that are rarely consequential.  Meanwhile, the stream-of-consciousness of Gerald, the narrator – who’s our guide to what’s really going on – appears only fitfully, often contained within pairs of brackets.


This wouldn’t be such a burden on the reader’s concentration and patience if the novel was shorter; but it clocks in at just over 300 pages.  As such, it reminds me of another satirical American novel from the Ronald Reagan / George Bush Senior era, Brett Easton Ellis’ American Psycho.  This too had a perfectly acceptable metaphor for the decadence of contemporary society but, through sheer exhausting length and weight of detail, it overstated its case.  Like American Psycho, Gerald’s Party could have made its point perfectly well at half or even a third of its length.