Deathlog 2017 – Part 1

 

© Eon Productions

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Warner Brothers

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© MGM / United Artists

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

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

 

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

 

From Wikipedia

 

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

 

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

 

© Aardman Animations

 

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

 

To be continued…  Alas.

 

© BBC

 

The Bash Street King

 

© DC Thomson

 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the passing of the American comic-book artist Bernie Wrightson.  Most famously, Wrightson was the creator of the DC Comics strip Swamp Thing, about a mutant superhero who was half-human and half-vegetable and who inspired my twelve-year-old self when I was “drawing monsters on the covers of my school jotters – the more shambling, squishy and barnacled the better.”  Sadly, another comic-book artist who had a big impact on me has just died too, though one from a different time and place and one who appealed to me when I was a different age, a kid of seven or eight years old: the Lancastrian artist Leo Baxendale.

 

Actually, by the time I got around to reading Baxendale’s most famous creations, he’d already stopped drawing them.  But even though they were being drawn by other artists, Baxendale’s style endured, as did the spirit he’d originally invested in them.  And it was that spirit – in equal parts surreal and anarchic – that was his biggest contribution to British comics, which’d tended to be conservative and staid.  Baxendale helped to blow the cobwebs off them.

 

Hired at the age of 22 by DC Thomson (as opposed to DC Comics), the publisher based in the Scottish city of Dundee, Baxendale spent the 1950s working on one of the company’s two most famous comics – the Beano, which, like its stablemate the Dandy, attracted a weekly readership of two million children in the immediate post-war era.  In February 1954, he launched a strip about some riotous schoolchildren called When the Bell Rings, which two years later was retitled The Bash Street Kids and which still appears in the Beano today.  When I started reading comics at the start of the 1970s, The Bash Street Kids became my favourite strip for a good few years.

 

One nice thing about The Bash Street Kids was that unlike other groups of youngsters in popular British culture up to that point, such as those in Ronald Searle’ St Trinian’s cartoons or Anthony Buckeridge’s Jennings books, both of which were set in boarding schools, these ones were unmistakably working class and received their schooling in an urban environment – similar to the experiences of most kids reading the Beano at the time.  Baxendale drew the characters in an eccentric, even slightly grotesque fashion, whilst imbuing them with a refreshing, forward-looking rebelliousness.  The result is somewhere between Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl.

 

When I started reading the strip, the clothes and facilities already seemed old-fashioned: the teacher’s cane and mortar board, the wooden desks with their inkwells, etc.  But the irreverent, at times anti-authoritarian mentality of the kids seemed bang up-to-date.  I could imagine at least three of them, the skull-and-crossbones-wearing Danny, the silent and oddball Wilfred (whose habit of always wearing his sweater right up to his nose can’t have been hygienic) and the aesthetically-challenged but sensitive Plug, getting seriously into punk rock when they were older.

 

© DC Thomson

 

Baxendale devised other enduring strips for the Beano, including Minnie the Minx, a female version of the Beano’s most celebrated strip, Dennis the Menace.  First appearing in 1953, a year before The Bash Street Kids, the eternally Tomboy-ish Minnie was once admiringly described by her creator as ‘Amazonian’.

 

He also masterminded two strips set in the American Wild West – despite its location in the un-Western setting of Dundee, DC Thomson had something of an obsession with the Wild West and the most famous strip in the Dandy was the one about the strapping cowboy Desperate Dan.  These were Little Plum, which also made its debut in 1953, and The Three Bears, which became a spin-off from Little Plum in 1959.  Probably not anthropologically accurate, Little Plum was (and still is) a sweet and eccentric strip detailing life among a decidedly suburban Red Indian tribe, whose tepees come equipped with televisions sets and refrigerators.  It was somehow inevitable that in the 1980s, ‘Little Plum’ was the nickname that Britain’s music critics sneeringly gave to Ian Astbury, singer with rock / goth band The Cult, who had an embarrassing obsession with Native American mysticism.

 

The Three Bears featured a family of three anthropomorphic and rather pudgy grizzly bears who spend their time trying to steal food from the local retail outlet, Hank’s Store.  The stories frequently ended with Hank chasing the pesky bears and peppering their butts with shot from a blunderbuss.  The Three Bears appeared in a Beano annual as late as 2015, but in an era more attuned to concerns about animal cruelty, I doubt if Hank was still using his blunderbuss on them.

 

Throughout its history, DC Thomson had been famous, if not notorious, for its conservatism.  This included an aversion to its employees being in trade unions and it can’t have been a relaxing or sympathetic environment to work in with weekly deadlines hovering like vultures.  In 1962, a stressed-out and physically-ailing Baxendale quit – “I just blew up like an old boiler and left” – and during the 1960s and 1970s he worked for other publishers like Oldhams Press, Fleetway and IPC on comics like Wham!, Smash!, Buster, Valiant, Lion, Whizzer and Chips, Knockout, Shiver & Shake and Monster Fun.

 

Possibly his most famous creation from this period was Grimly Feendish, a comic villain billed as ‘the rottenest crook in the world’ who bears a slight resemblance to Uncle Fester in The Addams Family.  This inspired the song Grimly Fiendish by the punk / goth band The Damned, which got to number 21 in the UK singles chart in 1985.  As late as 2005, Feendish popped up among a plethora of other characters from 1960s / 1970s British comics in the six-issue Albion series, Alan Moore’s curious tribute to the comics of that era.

 

From kazoop.blogspot.com

 

In the 1980s, Baxendale waged a lengthy legal battle against DC Thomson over the rights to the characters he’d created for the Beano, a battle that ended finally with an out-of-court settlement.  He used the proceeds from that to set up a publishing house called Reaper Books.  Incidentally, two decades earlier, at the time of the Vietnam War, Baxendale had published (and ultimately lost a lot of money on) an anti-war newspaper called the Strategic Commentary – one of whose subscribers was none other than the celebrated linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

 

As I’ve said, Baxendale’s creations were joyfully anarchic and surreal.  It’s telling that in the 1980s when four young artist-writers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Chris Donald, Simon Donald, Graham Dury and Simon Thorp, devised the anarchic, scatological and massively popular adult comic Viz and started satirising the famous British children’s comics that’d gone before them, there wasn’t much they could do when satirising Baxendale’s famous Beano strips other than make them even more surreal.  Little Plum became Little Plumber and The Bash Street Kids became The Posh Street Kids.  Meanwhile, The Three Bears were parodied as The Three Blairs (with Tony, Cherie and Leo Blair trying to steal from Gordon Brown’s store) and as the ultra-weird The Three Chairs.

 

Compare that with the brutal treatment that Viz meted out to the strips in the more cautious and traditional Dandy, like Desperate Dan (parodied as Desperately Unfunny Dan), Winker Watson (Wanker Watson), Korky the Cat (Corky the Twat), Black Bob the faithful Border Collie (Black Bag the Faithful Border Binliner) and Bully Beef (Biffa Bacon, with the Dandy’s schoolboy bully replaced by a Geordie psychopath who butts head, busts noses and breaks teeth).  Brilliantly, when DC Thomson threatened legal action in the 1990s, Viz retaliated by printing a strip called DC Thomson – the Humourless Scottish Git.

 

I suspect that the leading lights in the ‘British invasion’, i.e. those comic-book artists and writers like Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Steven Dillon and Grant Morrison, who crossed the Atlantic in the 1980s and helped revitalise the comics scene in the States, were greatly inspired in their early youth if not by Baxendale himself then by the characters he created.  Indeed, Moore said as much in 2013: “We started out ingesting the genuine anarchy of the Beano, when Baxendale was doing all that wonderful stuff, and then we moved on to American comics.”

 

© Rex Features