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

 

© Oxford University Press

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Compton-Tekli Film Productions / Colombia Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

© BBC

 

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

 

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

 

© AVCO Embassy Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

© The Mirisch Corporation / United Artists / MGM

 

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

 

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

 

© Hammer Films

 

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

 

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

 

© Universal Pictures

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

© Granada Television

 

Nessie found!

 

(c) Compton Films / United Artists

 

The Loch Ness Monster has returned.  I’d been getting worried about this particular monster – Nessie as she’s popularly known.  She’d been out of circulation for some time and I was starting to think something had happened to her.

 

In fact, the last time she got any coverage in the media, it wasn’t even because she’d been sighted in her native habitat of Loch Ness in Scotland.  Rather, in 2012, she surfaced in the pages of a new textbook distributed among Christian schools in the southern US state of Louisiana by an outfit called the Accelerated Christian Education programme.  Though the schools involved were private ones, they’d been given public-school funding by the state’s Republican governor Bobby Jindal.

 

Nessie is commonly believed to be a plesiosaur, making her a leftover giant reptile from the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.  And the textbook claimed Nessie’s existence was proof that dinosaurs have lived on earth at the same time as humans, that Charles Darwin had got his timelines mixed up and that his theory of evolution was wrong – with the (not necessarily logical) consequence that the Bible’s account of creation of life on earth was right.  In other words, Nessie proves that God did it.

 

http://www.scotsman.com/news/odd/loch-ness-monster-cited-by-us-schools-as-evidence-that-evolution-is-myth-1-2373903

 

Now I don’t want to argue with the finest scientific minds that the American Republican / religious right has to offer – you know, like Sarah Palin.  But there is a flaw in using Nessie to support an argument of this sort.  It’s unlikely that a small, cold-watered loch, one only about 10,000 years old, could be big enough or warm enough to support a breeding population of huge cold-blooded reptiles whose last appearance in the fossil records dates back more than 66 million years ago.  Or to put it more bluntly: Nessie doesn’t actually exist.

 

I can imagine Sarah Palin reading this – that’s assuming she is able to read – and squawking in goggle-eyed astonishment: “Whaa-aat?  You mean the Loch Ness Monster isn’t real?!”

 

Anyhow, last week, I was startled to see headlines declaring that Nessie finally had been discovered in Loch Ness.  For a giddy moment I wondered if plesiosaurs did still exist and if Charles Darwin and his evolution theory had been wrong all along, while the Bible and the American religious right’s pseudoscientists had been right all along.

 

(c) Compton Films / United Artists

 

But no, it turned out that the ‘Nessie’ referred to in those headlines was actually a 30-foot-long monster-shaped prop built by special effects man Wally Veevers for the film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes back in 1970.  The prop sank into the loch’s waters while the movie was being shot there.  It’s said that director Billy Wilder took a dislike to two humps on the prop’s back and insisted on having them removed, which had the effect of fatally jeopardising its buoyancy.  So down it went.  The fake monster, minus its humps but with a long, plesiosaur-like neck, has now been found on the loch’s bed by an underwater robot operated by the Norwegian company Kongsberg Maritime.

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-36024638

 

If you’ve never seen The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, you might be wondering what the Loch Ness Monster was doing in a movie about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective.  Well, her presence in it may sound incongruous, but as the film is such a glorious hodgepodge of elements – by turns sublime, ridiculous, humorous, bizarre, romantic and melancholic – Nessie fits into it quite nicely.  The film has Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson, played by Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, investigate a case that takes them to Loch Ness.  There, in a steampunk twist, it transpires that Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes, played by Christopher Lee, is busy testing a prototype military submarine on behalf of Britain’s secret service.  In a Scooby Doo-style attempt to keep the project secret, the submarine is disguised as Nessie.  It sports a monstrous neck and head to make sure the fearful locals keep their distance.

 

The writer, actor and comic performer Mark Gatiss has written fondly about The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, saying of Wilder and his scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond that they “gently take the mickey out of Sherlock Holmes in the way that you can only do with something that you really adore.”  He’s also cited it as an influence on Sherlock, the popular modern-day reimagining of the Sherlock Holmes stories that he and Stephen Moffat have helmed for the BBC since 2010.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/nov/07/mark-gatiss-sherlock-holmes

 

Indeed, in the TV series, Gatiss plays Mycroft Holmes to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock; and his portrayal of Holmes’s older and possibly smarter brother clearly owes something to Christopher Lee’s performance in the 1970 film.  Though both Gatiss and Lee, tall, sleek and lean, are far removed from the Mycroft Holmes of Conan Doyle’s fiction.  In the story The Greek Interpreter, for example, he’s described as “absolutely corpulent” with “a broad, fat hand like the flipper of a seal.”  And while both Lee’s Mycroft and Gatiss’s Mycroft are depicted as sinister, high-up operatives in British intelligence, the literary Mycroft was apparently something of a layabout.  Holmes dismissed him as having “no ambition and no energy”, content to hang out in a dubious institution called the Diogenes Club, which accommodated “the most unsociable and unclubable men in town.”

 

(c) Compton Films / United Artists

 

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is also, possibly, the first movie to suggest that something homoerotic is going on between Holmes and Watson – an idea that Sherlock-the-TV-show has had fun playing with.  But it gives Holmes some heterosexual romance too.  It shows him falling for a woman called Gabrielle Valladon, played by Geneviève Page, who gets him involved in the case and who later turns out to be a German spy.  The film ends on a mournful note when Holmes receives a letter from Mycroft informing him that Gabrielle has been executed by a firing squad.

 

Another thing that makes me feel a bit sad watching The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is the knowledge that both Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely, splendid in the lead roles, suffered misfortunes that stopped them reaching the heights of stardom they deserved.  Stephens already had an impressive cinematic and theatrical CV when he made the film and was even touted as the successor to Sir Laurence Olivier.  Later, however, the break-up of his marriage (to Maggie Smith) and alcoholism took their toll on his career.  He got his mojo back in the early 1990s with roles in heavyweight theatrical productions of Henry IV, Julius Caesar and King Lear; but he died in 1995, less than a year after being knighted.  Meanwhile, Northern Irish character actor Colin Blakely seemed ubiquitous on TV when I was a kid in the 1970s and early 1980s, but he died in 1987, in his mid-fifties, from leukaemia.

 

Anyway, here’s a photo of that rediscovered Nessie from The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.  Take a good look at it, all you American right-wing religious nut-jobs out there.  It’s the only monster you’re ever likely to see in Loch Ness.

 

(c) BBC

 

Scary British television

 

From goodreads.com

 

Something I noticed about the recent festive season was the amount of nostalgia expressed in the British media for the spooky side of Christmas.  A number of commentators wrote fondly about the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas-time that the Victorians and Edwardians seemed so fond of.  There was also a lot of nostalgic coverage given to the TV dramas that the BBC used to broadcast during the 1970s under the umbrella title of A Ghost Story for Christmas – one drama would be shown around December 25th each year and most of them were based on works by the doyen of British Victorian / Edwardian ghost-story writers, M.R. James.  Here are links to a few such articles about Britain’s festive ghost-story tradition that have appeared in the press over the past weeks:

 

http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/12/come-all-ye-fearful

http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/0/25496655

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/topics/christmas/10535291/Why-ghost-stories-evoke-the-Christmas-spirit.html

 

In fact, in recent years, the reputation of the old A Ghost Story for Christmas series has grown to the point where the BBC has tried its hand at making new instalments of it.  Accordingly, the Christmases of 2005, 2006, 2010 and 2013 have seen more TV adaptations of M.R. James stories.  The most recent one was a version of James’s The Tractate Middoth, which featured an attractively veteran cast including Eleanor Bron, Louise Jameson, Una Stubbs and Roy Barraclough and was written and directed by The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss.  These days, Gatiss definitely is the BBC’s go-to man for anything relating to horror, the supernatural and the occult.

 

I watched The Tractate Middoth on the evening of Christmas Day 2013.  While I didn’t think it was perfect – I felt Gatiss showed a shade too much of the supernatural horror that was skulking around the university libraries and leafy country lanes where the story took place, and he could have left a shade more to the viewers’ imaginations – he at least didn’t go completely over the top and surrender to the sort of heavy-handed pyrotechnics and special effects that ruin too many horror films these days.  He managed to create a comfortable, tweedy, bookish atmosphere that I think the cerebral James would have approved of and it was, in my opinion, a credible effort overall.  (Immediately after the story was broadcast on BBC2, Gatiss presented a documentary about the life of M.R. James himself.  You really are spoiling us, Mark.)

 

Anyway, The Tractate Middoth and the Ghost Story for Christmas series have got me thinking about the topic of scary stuff on British television generally.  During the 1970s and early 1980s, when I was a youngster, British TV seemed to be infested with horror and ghost series: not just A Ghost Story for Christmas, but also Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries, Thriller (not the old American series but a British one supervised by the prolific writer Brian Clemens), Beasts, Supernatural, Leap in the Dark, Sapphire and Steel, The Hammer House of Horror, The Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense and Tales of the Unexpected, as well as one-offs like the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula with Louis Jourdan.  Nor was this fad confined to adult TV schedules.  There were creepy items shown on children’s schedules too, including the anthology series Shadows and the seven-part drama Children of the Stones, which a recent documentary on Radio 4 (presented by comedian Stewart Lee) described as “the scariest programme ever made for children.”

 

Then, a little way into the 1980s, this genre simply seemed to vanish from British television.  I suspect that one reason for this was the ‘video nasties’ hysteria that gripped the media at the time, when Tory politicians, tabloid journalists and Mrs Mary Whitehouse would have you believe that horror films like Zombie Flesh-Eaters and The Evil Dead were corrupting the nation’s impressionable youth and turning them into cannibalistic ghouls and knife wielding psychopaths.  Accordingly, TV executives and programme makers may have shied away from subject matter that was macabre and therefore might be deemed ‘distasteful’.

 

But I’m sure there were other reasons too.  In the yuppie-fied, Thatcherite world of 1980s Britain, many people were too hard-headedly materialistic to take stories about ghosts and monsters seriously any more.  Meanwhile, in the United States, the massive success of Stephen King, first with his novels and then with the many film-versions of those novels – which was followed by a deluge of literary and cinematic imitators – seems to have convinced people that the macabre and the gothic were things best left to the Americans.  After all, there’d never been traditions of these in Britain.  Well, apart from M.R. James.  And Sir Walter Scott, Mathew Lewis, James Hogg, Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Arthur Machen, E.F. Benson, W.W. Jacobs, May Sinclair, Algernon Blackwood, Dennis Wheatley, Robert Aickman, Angela Carter and Ramsay Campbell.  And The Pan Book of Horror Stories series.  And Hammer Films.  And…

 

It says a lot for how unused to horror and ghost material British TV audiences became during the 1980s that in 1992, when the BBC finally commissioned a script from Stephen Volk and mounted a one-off special called Ghostwatch – a pastiche live documentary about a TV crew investigating a ‘real-life’ haunting in a suburban home – there was a national outcry.  Some people found it too scary.  Some people hadn’t even realised that what they were watching was a drama and believed it was actually happening.

 

(c) BBC

 

When horror returned to favour on British TV in the 1990s, it came with the success of American shows like The X-Files – which, when it wasn’t bogged down with torturous story-arcs about UFO conspiracies, had Mulder and Scully investigating all manner of spooky paranormal phenomena – and then Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  These led to further American series – Charmed, Supernatural, True Blood, The Walking Dead – and even some new British ones such as Strange, Apparitions, Demons and, most popularly, Being Human.

 

I’ve enjoyed several of these modern shows – I was, for a while, severely addicted to Buffy – but for me they don’t have the magic of their 1970s predecessors.  Some of them have their good points but, crucially, I don’t find them scary.  Why not?

 

Perhaps it’s because of the jokey knowingness that pervades most of them, pitched as they are at a younger audience who see themselves as being too cool and sophisticated to take this horror stuff seriously.  Or perhaps it’s merely because of the spell that nostalgia weaves over people – things are usually not as good as you remember them to be, and if I sat and down and watched some of those old 1970s shows now I might find them painfully dated, creaky and unfrightening.

 

But I do think that those horror / ghost series of yore had one great advantage over their modern equivalents.  With the exception of Sapphire and Steel (which had the imperturbable David McCallum and the impeccable Joanna Lumley as a mysterious pair of investigators who turn up at the scenes of various supernatural happenings), they were all anthology shows.  Each episode had a self-contained story with a self-contained cast of characters and as a result they were both suspenseful and believable – two traits that I feel are essential if a story is to be frightening.

 

In an anthology show you don’t know what to expect.  Because the characters are around for one episode only, you don’t know if they are going to survive to the end.  Thus, the format has an unpredictability that heightens the suspense.  However, the new shows, British and American, are conventional serials.  They feature regular casts, having different adventures in each episode whilst also being part of a larger, continuing storyline.  This enhances the viewers’ identification with and loyalty to the shows and gives them a brand recognition that helps market them.  But it also gives viewers a comforting sense of continuity and predictability when they watch them, which reduces the level of suspense.  Regular characters may be occasionally killed off – The Walking Dead is particularly notorious for the body-count among its regulars – but the general feeling of safeness, which I think is anathema to a properly scary story, is much higher than it is in an anthology series.

 

The other problem with a horror or supernatural series featuring a regular set of characters is that believability quickly goes out of the window – and to me, if you can’t believe in a scary story (at least for as long as you are reading or watching it), it isn’t actually scary.  In a well-constructed tale the reader can keep scepticism at bay and accept that a character, say, saw a ghost on one occasion.  But if the writer then pens further tales where the same character has more supernatural experiences on further occasions – encountering vampires, werewolves, etc. – the suspension of disbelief becomes impossible.  The writer has gone against all laws of possibility and the stories have lost all credibility.  Whatever the quality of The X-Files, Buffy, Being Human, etc., I’m afraid this problem makes them about as believable to me, and as scary to me, as Scooby Doo – a show whose formula their formulas unwittingly resemble.  This issue of believability, of course, doesn’t apply to an anthology series where every episode is autonomous, unconnected with what has gone before and what will come after.

 

In my next post, I’ll write a little more about the golden age of scary programmes on British TV, as I see it – and I’ll select my highlights from that era.

 

From wikipedia.org

 

Have I got Whos for you

 

 

As animals learn to recognise the sounds of danger and take flight on hearing those sounds, so when I was six years old I learned to take flight when I heard a certain sound coming from the television on Saturday teatimes.  It was a weird, pulsating sound that went diddly-dink, diddly-dink, diddly-dink and it was the start of the famous electronic music of the BBC’s flagship science-fiction show Doctor Who.  However, such was the monstrousness of the aliens encountered by the Doctor and his companions while they explored the universe in the Tardis, his police box-shaped space / time machine, that to me it seemed more like a horror show.  Legend has it that Britain’s entire juvenile population would take refuge from the show’s monsters by hiding behind their sofas, but I didn’t, because in our living room there wasn’t enough space to hide behind the sofa.  Instead, I’d run into the adjoining kitchen and sneak frightened glances back at the TV from the kitchen doorway.

 

However, like a character in a Joseph Conrad story, I eventually realised that the only way to conquer my fears was to confront them.  So I forced myself to stay in the living room when Doctor Who came on TV and watch it.  This was during the period when the Doctor was played by Jon Pertwee and, during his last couple of seasons, I did become reasonably immune to the show’s scary bits.  But then in 1974 a new production team took over and new Doctor, Tom Baker, inherited the lead role.  They decided to make the show as frightening as possible – well, as frightening as they could get away with on a teatime TV series watched largely by primary-school-age kids.  And suddenly I found myself watching it from the kitchen doorway again.

 

The show was long-running even then.  It’s far longer-running now and today, November 23rd, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of its first episode being broadcast in 1963.  Writer-actor Mark Gatiss recently wrote a TV play about how the show was created – courtesy of Sydney Newman, the BBC’s then head of drama, Verity Lambert, a young female producer, and William Hartnell, the flinty character actor who was the first person to play the Doctor.  Gatiss’s play, An Adventure in Space and Time, was shown on BBC2 two evenings ago and starred craggy Dundonian actor Brian Cox as Newman, actress Jessica Raine as Lambert and Harry Potter actor David Bradley as Hartnell.  An Adventure… nostalgically recreates both the tweedy boardrooms and the sweaty studios of the BBC in the early 1960s and is clearly a loving tribute by a massive fan of the show (which Gatiss avowedly is).  Also, it’s the best thing the BBC has done so far to celebrate Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.

 

(Other celebratory items have included Doctor Who: the Ultimate Guide on BBC3, the corporation’s teen / twenty-something channel, which treated us to the opinions of such experts on the show as useless teenybop-rock band McFly.  There was also an optimistically-titled special called The Science of Doctor Who, hosted by Brian Cox.  That’s Brian Cox the famous physicist, not Brian Cox the craggy Dundonian actor.)

 

 (c) Royal Mail

 

William Hartnell was 55 when he took on the role in 1963, but if you’ve seen him in movies like Carry On Sergeant or Hell Drivers, you’ll know that he belonged to a wartime generation of British actors who seemed like tough, leathery old men no matter what their real age was.  Accordingly, Hartnell often played the Doctor as a cranky pensioner (although he mellowed later on).  Indeed, in the show’s early episodes, he’s quite unheroic.  He comes across as a devious old shite and on one occasion, when he picks up a rock intending to stove in the head of an injured man, seems almost psychotic.  I wish that in the show’s modern incarnation, where there’s much bleating about the Doctor’s pacifism and his unwillingness to use physical force, the programme-makers would cast their minds back to how the character behaved originally.

 

One nice thing about Gatiss’s play is that it shows the change Doctor Who wreaked in Hartnell’s life after 1963.  He’d become typecast as a hard-man character capable only of playing crooks and army sergeants, he wasn’t in the best of health and he was possibly at the end of his acting career.  Then he found himself in a wildly popular TV show, one unlike anything he’d done before, and suddenly he became an instantly-recognisable hero to the nation’s children.  Sadly, he didn’t have long to enjoy his fame.  After three years his declining health – he found it increasingly difficult to remember his lines, especially the show’s sci-fi technobabble – forced him to quit.

 

But it wasn’t Hartnell that made Doctor Who a huge success.  It was the saltshaker-shaped, croak-voiced and homicidal Daleks that trundled into view at the end of its fifth episode that sent ratings through the roof.  The Daleks were created by Terry Nation, who till then was known as a comedy writer.  Nation almost didn’t write for Doctor Who, as he was already lined up to work with the legendary TV comic Tony Hancock.  However, as happened so often with Hancock and his writers – see also Ray Galton and Alan Simpson – he and Nation fell out, and Nation accepted the invitation to write for Doctor Who after all.  Thereafter, Nation’s work was mostly fantastical – he worked as script-editor on The Avengers and in the 1970s created the shows Survivors and Blake’s 7 – and he became one of the most influential figures in British TV science fiction.

 

From www.millersantiquesguide.com

 

In 1966, with Hartnell unable to continue in the role, someone hit on the idea that the Doctor – a super-intelligent, centuries-old alien – should, once his current body had worn itself out, be able to regenerate himself.  This meant the show could go on with different actors inhabiting the lead role.  Each new actor would give the Doctor his own quirks, tics and gimmicks but he also had to persuade audiences that he was at heart (or hearts – the Doctor has two) the same character.

 

The second Doctor, Patrick Troughton (who in An Adventure… was played by Mark Gatiss’s old League of Gentlemen colleague Reece Shearsmith), was a long-serving character actor, often in British horror movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1956), The Phantom of the Opera (1963) and The Black Torment (1964).  Later, he returned to the genre, with Scars of Dracula (1970), Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (1973) and The Omen (1976), in which he played a priest who got memorably skewered by a lightning rod falling off a church.  (That scene still chills me – films in which Doctor Who gets killed off always seem hard-core to me.)  Troughton’s Doctor was an impish and dishevelled character, part hobo and part hippy, with a fleeting resemblance to Mo in the Three Stooges.  Most subsequent actors in the role have named him as their favourite Doctor and some (including current incumbent Matt Smith) have borrowed from him.

 

(c) BBC

 

The producers during the Troughton years, Innes Lloyd and then Peter Bryant, abandoned the ‘historical adventure’ stories common in the Hartnell era, in which the Doctor met the likes of Marco Polo, Emperor Nero and the Aztecs and the only science-fiction element was the Tardis.  Instead, they pushed the show towards out-and-out science fiction and monsters.  They developed the Doctor’s second-deadliest enemies, the Cybermen, who started off as sinister gimp-like figures in silvery body-stockings and evolved into the hulking, blank-faced, handled-headed baddies that they’re familiar as today.

 

Also, the show featured more stories set on contemporary earth, for example, with Cybermen stomping down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral and, more incongruously, yeti marauding through the London Underground.  No doubt this was due to budgetary restrictions, modern-day earth (well, London) being cheaper to film than the historical past or the distant future.  But it was also due to the producers realising that audiences found it more unnerving when the Doctor’s monstrous foes popped up in settings they were familiar with.  Debuting during this time was the long-running and admirably unflappable army-officer character, Brigadier (initially Colonel) Alistair Lethbridge Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney, who helped Troughton and four subsequent Doctors against invading aliens.

 

In 1969, Troughton quit too and the BBC had to decide whether to end the show after a respectable seven-year run or to continue it with a new actor.  It opted for the latter course but made changes to the format.  The Doctor’s race, the all-powerful and isolationist Time Lords, were introduced.  The Doctor, it transpired, had stolen the Tardis from his home planet and nipped off in it to see the universe.  Worse, he’d broken the Time Lords’ non-interventionist code by meddling in events (for the good, obviously) at every place he’d landed.  Troughton’s tenure ended with the Time Lords capturing him, exiling him to earth – with the Tardis disabled – and making him regenerate again.

 

Stranded on earth and played now by Jon Pertwee, the Doctor fell in with the Brigadier again and started working for his anti-alien military organisation UNIT (which stood once for the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce; though after the real United Nations complained, the programme-makers changed it to the United Intelligence Taskforce).  Much crap has been written about Jon Pertwee by the show’s more intellectual fans.  Although until then Pertwee’s background had mostly been in comedy, he stands accused of making the character too much like a straightforward action hero – his Doctor wore a cape and often overcame the villains by using on them a futuristic martial art called Vensuvian Aikido.  Allegedly too, he made the character right-wing and authoritarian by working for the military-industrial complex, i.e. the Brigadier and UNIT.  It’s even claimed he turned the character into a petrol-head because his Doctor had a fondness for driving vintage cars.  Pertwee’s real personality – from all accounts he was a bit of a prima-donna – probably hasn’t helped his reputation.

 

(c) BBC

 

To that I can only say that during his tenure from 1970 to 1974, Pertwee’s impact was immense on kids like me.  To us, he was The Main Man.  Every Monday at school would be spent discussing what he’d got up to – what alien or monster he’d karate-chopped – on the previous Saturday’s episode.  (These discussions required considerable play-acting from me, as I’d been too scared to watch much of the episodes.  But to preserve my reputation for manliness I had to pretend that I had.)  No doubt it did Pertwee’s considerable ego no harm to know that, for a large section of the British population, he was the Greatest Bloke in the Universe.

 

As the Doctor and the Brigadier were in a Holmes / Watson-type relationship, producer Barry Letts and script-editor Terrance Dicks gave them a Moriarty in the shape of the Master, another renegade Time Lord, one who was as evil as the Doctor was good.  Playing the Master initially was the excellent Roger Delgado, a Cockney in real life although Spanish and Belgian in his parentage, which gave him the necessary amount of foreignness to be a British TV villain at the time.

 

This was also when the show’s greatest writer, Robert Holmes, became prominent.  He was responsible for such traumatising stories as Terror of the Autons, which featured murderous sentient plastic in various forms: murderous plastic dummies, dolls, armchairs, flowers and telephone leads.  Also creeping me out during this period was a non-Holmes story called The Daemons, which had the Master unleash ancient and evil forces from an English country church and which was in the tradition of 1970s British folk-horror movies like The Wicker Man.  A sequence where a malevolent group of Morris Dancers try to suffocate Pertwee by pinning him against a maypole and wrapping him with the pole’s ribbons while they dance around him has left me with a lifelong fear of Morris Dancers.

 

This period also saw The Three Doctors, an adventure marking the show’s tenth anniversary in 1973.  It brought together all three characters who’d played the character by that point: Pertwee, Troughton and (a very ailing) Hartnell.  This set the style for future anniversary / reunion adventures such as The Five Doctors (1983), The Two Doctors (1985), Time Crash (2007) and one that’s being shown tonight, featuring the tenth and eleventh Doctors, Day of the Doctor.  In these, the Doctors assemble through some strange kink in the space-time continuum, bicker, get on each other’s nerves and insult each other’s interior-design sense in the Tardis control room.  (“You’ve done this place up.  I don’t like it.”)  The Three Doctors saw Pertwee and co save the Time Lords from destruction and in gratitude they lifted his exile, allowing him to go wandering again.

 

(c) BBC

 

In 1974 the Doctor regenerated again, Pertwee being replaced by Tom Baker.  Like Troughton, Baker had served time in British horror and fantasy films like Vault of Horror, Golden Voyage of Sinbad, Frankenstein: the True Story and the mind-boggling sleaze-fest The Mutations, and he was also a raconteur well-known for his drinking exploits in the less salubrious pubs of Soho with the likes of Francis Bacon.  Eccentric, wild-eyed, endowed with a voice and manner that made him seem like a Shakespearean version of Groucho Marx, and wearing the definite Doctor Who outfit of a wide-brimmed hat and super-long multi-coloured scarf, he became the franchise’s signature Doctor.  When The Simpsons do a Doctor Who gag these days, it invariably features Baker’s fourth Doctor.

 

With Baker as the definite Doctor, an ambitious young producer called Philip Hinchcliffe at the helm, and the show’s best writer, Robert Holmes, as script-editor, the next three years were the show’s Golden Age.  Hinchcliffe and Holmes borrowed ideas from all manner of British horror and adventure fiction, such as Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, Sax Rohmer, Agatha Christie, Frankenstein, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, as well as from the Hammer horror films and Quatermass, and they produced a slew of classic (and, for me, terrifying) adventures: The Ark in Space, Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius, Masque of Mandragora, The Deadly Assassin, Robots of Death and Talons of Weng Chiang.

 

During this era my all-time favourite Who adventure was broadcast, The Seeds of Doom, which concerned alien seed-pods that germinated, infected their human victims and then slowly transformed them into hideous, flesh-eating plant-monsters.  One pod falls into the hands of a crazed millionaire plant-lover called Harrison Chase – played by Tony Beckley, a familiar face from cult British movies like Get Carter and The Italian Job – and Chase wastes no time in getting it to germinate.  The scenes where slowly-transforming botanist Arnold Keeler is chained to a bed, futilely begging Chase to give him medical help, while Chase is more interested in aiding his metamorphosis by feeding him protein (i.e. slices of raw meat), is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever watched on TV.

 

Alas, all good things come to an end.  By 1976 Britain’s self-appointed moral guardian Mrs Mary Whitehouse was on the warpath about the show’s horror and violence – she was particularly upset by an episode of The Deadly Assassin that seemingly ended with Tom Baker being drowned.  So the BBC took Hinchcliffe off the show and instructed its next producer, Graham Williams, to tone things down.  Consequently, Williams’ era is seen as the start of a long period of decline for the show, the stories being pitched at a much younger audience and Baker being encouraged to play up the Doctor’s comedic aspects.  Most painfully, a cute and intensely annoying robot dog called K9 was added to the cast.  One of the creators of K9 was writer Bob Baker, who since then has co-written the Wallace and Gromit films with Nick Park.  I can only say that, as heroic dogs go, K9 is not fit to sniff Gromit’s bottom.

 

(c) BBC

 

That said, I still found some of the Williams-era Doctor Who entertaining.  This was largely because towards the end of it the great Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, was appointed script editor, which upped the level of wit in the writing.  Also, Tom Baker received some good dramatic support, both from his regular cast (which included Lalla Ward, now better known as Mrs Richard Dawkins) and from his guest stars, which included such classy characters actors as Iain Cuthbertson, Valentine Dyall, Peter Jeffrey, John Woodvine and Julian Glover.  Glover, in fact, was the villain in the best adventure of this period, The City of Death, which was set in Paris and co-written by Adams.  At one point The City of Death managed to attract some 16 million viewers, showing that, even if the show was declining in quality, the Great British public was still watching it in droves.

 

A year later, however, another new producer arrived and a terrible thing happened.  For the first time, Doctor Who became conscious of its fans.

 

To be continued.

 

If you want blood… you got it

 

This is an old story, but as this blog is called Blood and Porridge, I thought I had better put some blood in it.  (The porridge will appear later.)

 

Last year, a couple of friends of mine in France thought of a novel way to illustrate the vast cost in human lives of the wars, conflicts and genocides of the past century.  In history books, these losses can only be presented as multi-digit numbers.  However, seeing 100,000 or 1,000,000 or 10,000,000 printed on a page hardly gets across to the reader the sense of massive carnage — a long sequence of zeroes is unlikely to convey the horror of slaughter conducted on an industrial scale.

 

Instead, my friends decided use blood to communicate this loss of life.  First, they made a huge amount of fake blood.  Then they gathered together an array of common kitchen receptacles and filled them with it, making sure the quantity in each was in proportion to the numbers of deaths caused by a particular conflict in recent history.  And then they assembled the blood-filled vessels on a kitchen table and photographed and labelled them: Armenia, Cambodia, Iraq, North Korea, Sudan…

 

Once you get past the visceral, visual impact of the blood itself, you start to make unsettling comparisons.  The death toll of the 9/11 attacks is represented by a tiny red bead.  The bead is dwarfed by a crimson bowl that looms over it, representing the atrocity of Holodomor in 1932-33 — the ‘terror-famine of Ukraine’ that claimed something in the region of 3,000,000 lives, engineered by Joseph Stalin.  I knew about 9/11, of course.  With shame, I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Holodmor before I saw this.

 

For more information, check out the 100 Years of World Cuisine website at: http://100yearsofworldcuisine.com/.

 

 

On a less serious note, I should mention that a few times I’ve been in the room where this was put together.  It belongs to two of the artists’ parents and is both a charming and (as you’d expect in France) a well-equipped apartment-kitchen in the heart of Paris.  Seeing it transformed into a scene that resembled the trophy room of a vampirical serial killer was a shock.  Not surprisingly, to create this display, they chose a weekend when their parents were away from home.

 

(I suspect this shows the cultural gulf between Paris and where I come from.  The Parisians used their parents’ absence from the premises to make an artistic statement about the utter hideousness of human history.  In the past, in Scotland, when my parents were away for the weekend, my immediate instinct was to commandeer the house for a debauched party fuelled by Southern Comfort, beer and AC/DC records.)

 

Incidentally, if you want to know how to make your own fake blood, here is an instructive clip by Mark Gatiss of The League of Gentlemen.  I’m told that my friends followed much the same recipe, although they heated the mixture to make it thicker and used ‘maize-starch’ instead of ‘corn flour’.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RhuR1VMkpXM&NR=1