Pump up the volumes


(c) George Allen & Unwin Ltd

(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films


Although I’m someone who loves both books and films, I’m wary when these two art-forms overlap.  If a film appears that’s based on a book I’ve read and liked, I feel reluctant to go and see it.  Or if there’s a new film that’s based on a book that I haven’t read but I hear is good, I usually try to read the book before I watch the film.  And if I enjoy that book, I may not even bother with the film.  This is because I find that the majority of films based on books are – regardless of their quality as self-contained entities – disappointing compared to their source material.


Obviously, a film, even a very long film, will never have enough time to represent all the incidents, details, characters and ideas that give a book its richness.  You either end up with a film whose scriptwriter has hacked away chunks of the book – like the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Honorary Consul, which deletes one of the book’s main (and unfortunately for the film, most memorable) characters, the machismo-obsessed Argentinian writer Julio Saavedra – or with a film that becomes cluttered in its efforts to stay faithful to the book.  For film adaptations that try to recreate every twist and turn in the books’ plots, to the point where they become incomprehensible, you need look no further than the Harry Potter movies.


Television adaptations of books suffer from this problem too – although in theory TV programme-makers have more time at their disposal to cover everything.  I remember back in 1977 being narked by the BBC’s nearly-three-hour-long Count Dracula, which starred the late Louis Jourdan as Bram Stoker’s vampire count and which supposedly was the most faithful version ever of Stoker’s novel.  However, my twelve-year-old self, already a Bram Stoker purist, was not impressed that two of the characters, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris, were for the sake of narrative simplicity compressed into one character called ‘Quincey Holmwood’.


A similar thing happened 23 years later, when the BBC unveiled its four-hour adaptation of Titus Groan and Gormenghast, the first two books in Mervyn Peake’s Titus trilogy.  Here, the fearsome father-and-son team of Sourdust and Barquentine, the officials who enforce the observation of endless, numbing ritual at Gormenghast Castle, were combined into one character played by Warren Mitchell.


Even when a film or TV production manages to reproduce a book’s plot and characters and doesn’t tie itself in knots doing so, it’s still liable to miss something that’s crucial to one’s enjoyment of the book – the author’s voice.  John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Tess (1979) both stick closely to the Thomas Hardy novels on which they’re based, and both are undeniably good films; but inevitably they lack that flavour that’s uniquely and enjoyably Hardy-esque.  For instance, I like Alan Bates’ portrayal of Farmer Gabriel Oak in Madding Crowd; but his performance didn’t, alas, give me the impression that Oak was capable of smiling so that “the corners of his mouth spread till they were an unimportant distance of his ears, his eyes were reduced to chinks, and diverging wrinkles appeared around them, extending upon his countenance like the rays in a rudimentary sketch of the sun.”


Unsurprising, one book that translated smoothly into a film, losing little of its substance in the process, was Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal.  An account of a doomed romance during the Northern Irish Troubles, it was filmed in 1984.  The novel is short and straightforward in plot, so it isn’t diminished when its story is retold in a 100-minute film.  Also, MacLaverty is an author who firmly believes in showing rather than telling – he writes both simply and visually.  Thus, there isn’t a marked literary style that the film misses out on, either.


(c) Collins

(c) Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer


That’s not to say that I haven’t encountered the odd film, based on a book, which does a better job of telling the story than the book does.  This is usually because writers, typing out hundreds of pages without having anyone to tell them when to stop, can fall into the trap of waffling; whereas filmmakers are usually under pressure to tell a story with a beginning, middle and an end within a time limit.  For that reason, I thought that John Sturges’ 1968 adaptation of Alistair MacLean’s Arctic / submarine thriller Ice Station Zebra was better paced and structured than its literary predecessor.  MacLean’s novel is basically an espionage whodunit where the characters potter about in a submarine, surface at the North Pole, and then potter about in the submarine again.  The filmmakers wisely confine the submarine stuff to the film’s build-up and use the North Pole for the climax, which they also beef up by bringing in some Soviet paratroopers.


Another film-adaptation that I preferred because it cut the flab from its source novel was Steven Spielberg’s shark-epic, Jaws (1976).  Happily, that film abandoned the sub-plots in Peter Benchley’s original book about the Mafia exerting pressure on the local town mayor to keep the beaches open in spite of the shark attacks; and about the affair that develops between the ichthyologist Matt Hooper and Police Chief Brody’s wife, Ellen.  This left more time in the film for proper shark action which, needless to say, my eleven-year-old self was delighted about.


More often, though, a film adaptation of a book is successful not because it manages to be better than the book – but because it uses the book as a starting point and then goes off and does something different.  The cinematic result isn’t necessarily better than the book, but it works in its own right.  A classic example of this is Ridley Scott’s transformation of Philip K. Dick’s eccentric, mind-screwing novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep into the 1982 movie Blade Runner, which uses Dick’s basic story to create a new cinematic aesthetic with the use of astonishing set-design, cinematography and special effects.


However, perhaps the most exuberant instance of a book being incarnated in a new, different-but-equally-valid cinematic form is Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996).  It takes Irvine Welsh’s ultra-dark and very-Scottish source novel and reinvents it a way that captured the mid-1990s zeitgeist in Britain (as opposed to just Scotland).  The film retains enough of the book’s darkness to make it feel edgy, daring and anti-establishment, though Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge leave out incidents that would have been near-unwatchable on screen, such as when a revenge-seeking character mocks up the buggering of a child with a Black-and-Decker power drill; or when psycho-villain Begbie kicks his pregnant girlfriend in the belly to make her miscarry.  At the same time, the film is awash with then-fashionable young British actors (Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Kelly Macdonald) and then-fashionable Brit-pop music (Blur, Sleeper, Pulp).  It becomes a mission statement, telling the world that British cinema is back (temporarily at least) with a punky new attitude and shed-loads of young directing, writing, acting and musical talent.


(c) Minerva

(c) Channel 4 Films / Poly Gram Filmed Entertainment


It’s fascinating how Boyle’s version of Trainspotting has to a large extent supplanted Welsh’s version of it – so that by the time Welsh got around to writing a sequel, Porno, in 2002, he seemed to be writing for two audiences, those who’d read the original book and those who’d seen the film.  There are references to things that’d happened in the book, which didn’t happen in the film, but they’re confined to vignettes – for example, there’s a couple of pages where the hero, Renton, tracks down Second Prize, a member of his old gang in the book who was deleted from the movie.  It’s almost as if those vignettes are there so that book-followers can read them and movie-followers can skip them, leaving everyone happy with the continuity.


Finally, over the last few years, we’ve seen a new phenomenon, that of the lavish movie series and the lavish TV series, which invariably end up as DVD box-sets that are as thick as sets of encyclopaedias.  This has led to certain book-to-screen adaptations being criticised not for what they leave out, but for what they put in.  The most famous, or notorious, example of this is Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit film trilogy, which took J.R.R. Tolkien’s moderate-sized source novel, a prequel to his Lord of the Rings books that’s about 300 pages long, and expanded it into three movies that had a total running time of 474 minutes.  Jackson got flak from Tolkien fans for, basically, taking their beloved and scholarly old author and pumping him full of movie-steroids; for turning what’s essentially a mild-mannered children’s book into a long, loud, testosterone-fuelled, CGI-laden series of blockbusters.


Jackson, who’d filmed the three Lord of the Rings novels in the early noughties, argued that he’d merely padded out The Hobbit’s storyline with material from the appendices that Tolkien placed at the back of the third and final Lord of the Rings novel, The Return of the King.  These appendices gave extra information about the history, mythology and culture of the books’ setting, Middle Earth.  Sneakily, though, Jackson also added some characters who’d appeared in his earlier Rings movies who, to be honest, didn’t have any business being in The Hobbit movies – unless it was to please fans of the Rings movies who wanted to see some fond old faces again.  I suppose I didn’t mind the unnecessary presence in The Hobbit trilogy of the likes of Lady Galadriel or Saruman the White, but I could certainly have done without Legolas-the-elf.  Played by the doleful Orlando Bloom, Legolas is surely the most boring elf in Middle Earth.


And it’s not just The Hobbit that’s been pumped up during the transition from page to screen.  Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, the first of Harris’s books about suave, cannibalistic serial killer Dr Hannibal Lecter, had already been filmed twice; excellently by Michael Mann in 1986 and less excellently by Brett Ratner in 2003.  Now, however, it’s also become the basis for seasons 1, 2 and 3 of the NBC television series Hannibal, whose show-runner is the screenwriter and producer Bryan Fuller.


Although Fuller introduced the book’s main characters – serial-killer profiler Will Graham (Hugh D’Arcy), senior FBI agent Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) and the charming, intellectual and suspiciously-culinary Dr Lecter himself (Mads Mikkelsen) – in the first episode, it’s only now, some 30 episodes later, that the show is getting around to the actual meat of Harris’s novel, which is the hunt for the family-murdering, William Blake-inspired serial killer Francis Dolarhyde.  Coincidentally, the actor playing Dolarhyde is none other than Richard Armitage, who in the Hobbit movies essayed the role of the royal dwarf, Thorin Oakenshield, “son of Thrór, King under the Mountain” – or as my girlfriend likes to call him, ‘The Hot Dwarf’.


One way in which Fuller has extended the story of Red Dragon to almost unimaginable lengths has been to throw in chunks of the third of Harris’s Lecter novels, which is also called Hannibal.  These chunks include the character of Mason Verger, the repulsive meat-packing mogul who plans to feed Lecter to his collection of prize pigs; and Lecter’s escape to the city of Florence at the end of season 2.  Actually, Fuller has described Hannibal as a ‘mash-up’ of Harris’s novels rather than a linear series of adaptations of them, which makes sense.  And I have to say that of Harris’s novels, Hannibal-the-book is the one that most suits the grotesque, baroque and gothic aesthetic of Hannibal-the-show.  (It’s a pity that NBC has just announced the cancellation of Hannibal, as it would have been interesting to see, after another season or two, what Fuller would do when he finally got around to filming the second and most famous of Harris’s Lecter novels, The Silence of the Lambs.)


Anyway, I wonder which literary work will be next to be subjected to the pumping-up, as opposed to the trimming-down, treatment.  Perhaps Peter Jackson or Bryan Fuller will treat us to a nine-hour film trilogy or TV adaptation of Ernest Hemmingway’s hundred-page novella The Old Man and the Sea.  With, hopefully, the big fish played by Richard Armitage.


(c) Berkley

(c) NBC


Was there anything this man couldn’t do?


(c) WingNut Films


For a man who epitomised evil to generations of film-goers – he played, after all, Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, Scaramanga, Comte de Rochefort, Frankenstein’s monster, the mummy, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Blind Pew, Saruman, Count Dooku, the Jabberwocky, the Devil and, in the 2008 adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, Death himself  – the passing of venerable actor Sir Christopher Lee has sparked a remarkable outpouring of love over the last few days, in online newspaper comment-threads, on Facebook and on Twitter.


The love has flowed both from ordinary punters and from the countless celebrities who knew and / or admired him.  And those celebrities have included some of the coolest people on the planet: Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Scorsese, Sir Iain McKellen, Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, Alice Cooper, Slash from Guns n’ Roses, Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols, Bruce Campbell, Bryan Fuller, the Soska Sisters, the human movie-factory that is Roger Corman (who, in between tweeting to promote his new opus Sharktopus Vs Whalewolf, said of Lee, “Your talent, kindness and generosity will never be forgotten”) and Boris Johnson.  There was a deliberate mistake in that last sentence – did you spot it?


I don’t think the Queen has tweeted her condolences yet, but Joan Collins has, which is the next best thing.


From @joancollinsobe


Indeed, I’ve seen the adjective ‘awesome’ thrown around several times in description of the great man and his career.  But in my opinion, Lee wasn’t just awesome.  To me, he discovered the kingdom of Awesomeness and then journeyed in there and planted his flag (probably a skull and crossbones) on top of the highest peak of Awesomeness.  And to support this opinion, I’ll now remind you of a few of the things that Lee did during his 93 years on earth.


Until his death on June 7th, he was one of the last people alive who could claim to have met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in English literature.  As a lad Lee encountered James, who was then Provost of Eton College, when his family tried, unsuccessfully, to enrol him there.  Lee obviously didn’t hold his failure to get into Eton against James because in the early noughties he played the writer in the BBC miniseries Ghost Stories for Christmas.  (Previously, Lee had attended Summer Fields School in Oxford, where one of his classmates was none other than the future John Steed-of-The Avengers Patrick Macnee.)


Incidentally, though in the late 1970s he penned an entertaining autobiography called Tall, Dark and Gruesome, Lee didn’t seem to go in for writing per se.  But he had literary connections aplenty.  He was step-cousin of James Bond’s creator, Ian Fleming; and by the time Peter Jackson got around to filming the Lord of the Rings trilogy (2002-2004), he could boast that he was the only member of the movies’ cast and crew who’d actually met J.R.R. Tolkien.  He was also good friends with Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), the fabulous Ray Bradbury, and posh occult-thriller-writer Dennis Wheatley, whose potboiler The Devil Rides Out Lee would persuade Hammer Films to adapt to celluloid in 1968.


Talking of Wheatley and the occult, Lee reputedly owned a library of books about black magic.  As a kid I remember reading a film book called The Horror People by the critic John Brosnan, in which Lee told Brosnan that his occult books were for reading purposes only and he would never try to practice the dark arts because – yikes! – “It’s too dangerous.”


Lee’s military service during World War II included attachments with the Special Operations Executive and the Long Range Desert Patrol (which was the forerunner to the SAS), but he kept schtum about what he actually did with them.  Decades later, though, he may have unintentionally dropped a hint about his secret wartime activities to Peter Jackson when, on set, he discreetly advised the Kiwi director about the sound a dying man would really make if he’d just had a knife planted in his back.


In the late 1940s he got into acting, although not with much initial success due to his being too tall (six-foot-four) and too foreign-looking (he had Italian ancestry).  During this period he at least learned how to swordfight, a skill he drew on when appearing in various low-budget swashbucklers.  During the making of one such film, 1955’s The Dark Avenger, the famously sozzled Errol Flynn nearly hacked off Lee’s little finger; although later Lee got revenge when, during a TV shoot with the same actor, a slightly-misaimed sword-thrust knocked off Flynn’s toupee, much to the Hollywood star’s mortification (and no doubt to everyone else’s amusement).


(c) 20th Century Fox


And I’ve read somewhere that when he made the swashbuckler The Scarlet Blade for Hammer in 1963, Lee taught a young Oliver ‘Ollie’ Reed the basics of sword-fighting.  I’m sure fight-choreographer William Hobbs and the stunt crew who worked on The Three Musketeers a decade later quietly cursed Lee for this.  (He starred alongside Reed in the film, playing the memorably eye-patched Comte de Rochefort.)  From all accounts, the ever-enthusiastic Ollie threw himself into the Musketeers’ sword-fights like a whirling dervish, and eventually one stuntman had to ‘accidentally’ stab him in the hand and put him out of action before he killed someone.


In 1956 and 1957 Lee got two gigs for Hammer films that’d change his fortunes and make him a star – playing the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein and then, on the strength of that, Bram Stoker’s famous vampire count in Dracula.  Apparently, Hammer wanted originally to hire the hulking comedic actor Bernard Bresslaw to play Frankenstein’s monster.  I suppose there’s a parallel universe out there somewhere where Bresslaw did indeed get the job; so that the man who played Little Heap in Carry On Cowboy (1965), Bernie Lugg in Carry On Camping (1969) and Peter Potter in Carry On Girls (1973) went on to play Count Dooku in the Star Wars movies and Saruman the White in the Lord of the Rings ones.


Playing Baron Frankenstein in The Curse of Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Dracula was the legendary Peter Cushing and he and Lee would hit it off immediately, become best mates and make another 18 films together.  Such was Lee’s affection for Cushing that I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded the other day when the ever-reliable Fox News f***ed up the announcement of Lee’s death by mistakenly flashing up a photograph of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars (1977).


(c) Fox News


Lee was famously uncomfortable about being branded a horror-movie star and about being associated with Dracula – an association that might thwart his ambitions for a serious acting career.  He did, though, play the character another six times for Hammer, and an eighth time in the Spanish production El Conde Dracula.  Tweeting a tribute to him the other day, Stephen King said, “He was the King of the Vampires.”  So sorry, Sir Chris, but when the man who wrote Salem’s Lot says you’re the King of the Vampires, you’re the King of the Vampires.


(c) Hammer Films

(c) Hammer Films


As Dracula, he got to bite Barbara Shelley, Linda Hayden, Anouska Hempel, Marsha Hunt and Caroline Munro.  Last-minute interventions by Peter Cushing in Dracula AD 1972 (1972) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) prevented him from biting Stephanie Beacham and Joanna Lumley, which must have been frustrating.  Meanwhile, the 1965 movie Dracula, Prince of Darkness was the first really scary horror movie I ever saw, on TV, back when I was eight or nine years old.  I’d watched old horror films made by Universal Studios in the 1940s, like House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), in which everything was discreetly black-and-white and bloodless, so I wasn’t prepared for an early scene in Dracula, Prince of Darkness’s where Lee / the count is revived during a ceremony that involves a luckless traveller being suspended upside-down over a coffin and having his throat cut, so that blood splatters noisily onto the supposedly dead vampire’s ashes.  I suspect that exposure to that traumatic scene transformed me from the morbid, oddball kid I was then into the normal, well-balanced adult I am today.  Or maybe it’s the other way around.


Thanks to Hammer’s success in the horror genre, the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s saw a boom in British, usually gothic, horror filmmaking.  And during that boom, Lee did many cool and memorable, though evil, things.  He drove his car into Michael Gough and squidged off Gough’s hand in Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors (1965).  He forced Vincent Price to immerse himself in a vat of acid in Scream and Scream Again (1969).  He turned up as a nasty, snobbish civil servant and tormented Donald Pleasence in Deathline (1972).


He did bad things to, and had bad things done to him in return by Peter Cushing.  As a mad-scientist-cum-asylum-keeper in The Creeping Flesh (1972), he brought a monster to life and then, after the monster had attacked Cushing and driven him insane with fear, he coolly incarcerated Cushing in his asylum.  Whereas in The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973) Cushing chased him through a prickly hawthorn bush – hawthorns are apparently not good for vampires and the experience, Lee recalled in his autobiography, left him ‘shedding genuine Lee blood like a garden sprinkler’ – before impaling him on a sharp, uprooted fence-post.  Meanwhile, the 1972 British-Spanish movie Horror Express featured a decomposing ape-man fossil that’d come back to life, was possessed by an alien force, had the power to suck people’s brains out through their eyeballs, and was generally such an evil motherf***er that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing had to join forces to defeat it!  Silly horror movies don’t get any better than this.


(c) Jack Morrisey / The New Yorker


Fluent in French, Italian, Spanish and German, Lee also found it easy to find employment making horror movies on mainland Europe, where the gothic tradition was raunchier, more lurid and looser in its plot logic than its counterpart in Britain.  He worked with the Italian maestro Mario Bava and with the fascinatingly prolific, but erratic, Spanish director Jess Franco.  Despite Franco’s cheeky habit of shooting scenes with Lee and then inserting them into a totally different and usually pornographic movie – something Lee would only discover later, when he strolled past a blue-movie theatre in Soho and noticed that he was starring in something like Eugenie and the Story of her Journey into Perversion (1970) – Lee held the Spaniard in esteem and championed his work at a time when it was unfashionable to do so.  (Since his death in 2013, Franco’s reputation has begun to improve and art-house director Peter Strickland’s recent movie The Duke of Burgundy is a tribute, at least in part, to the man.)


Franco also directed later entries in a series of movies about Fu Manchu that Lee made in the 1960s, in which he played Sax Rohmer’s super-villain in rather unpolitically-correct Oriental makeup and spent his time barking orders at Chinese minions, who were usually played by Burt Kwouk.  And when Fu Manchu’s secret headquarters got blown up at the end, Lee’s voice would boom imperiously through the smoke: “The world will hear of me again!”  A prediction that proved to be right.


(c) Compton Films


In the early 1970s, Lee finally got opportunities to make the sort of films he wanted to make, including Richard Lester’s two Musketeers movies (1974 and 1975); the ninth official Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun (1975), in which he taunted Roger Moore, “You work for peanuts – a hearty well-done from Her Majesty the Queen and a pittance of a pension.  Apart from that, we are the same.  To us, Mr Bond.  We are the best…  Oh come, come, Mr Bond.  You get as much fulfilment out of killing as I do, so why don’t you admit it?”; and Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970), regarded by many as the best attempt at bringing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s deerstalker-wearing sleuth to the screen.


In that latter film, Lee played Holmes’s snooty brother Mycroft – the role that Mark Gatiss now plays in the popular BBC TV version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson.  Lee also played Sherlock Holmes himself several times, including in a couple of early-1990s TV movies with Dr Watson played by his long-ago school chum Patrick Macnee.  And he played Henry Baskerville in the 1959 Hammer adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles, which had Peter Cushing in the role of Holmes.  But for some strange reason, nobody ever thought of casting Lee as Professor Moriarty.


(c) Hammer Films


In 1973, he also played Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man, a film that needs no introduction from me.  It’s sad to think that recent years have seen the deaths of nearly all the film’s main cast members – Ingrid Pitt, Diane Cilento, Edward Woodward and now Lee – leaving just Britt Ekland in the land of the living.  So take care of yourself, Britt.  Go easy when you’re dancing naked around your bedroom.


Later in the 1970s, no longer so typecast in horror movies and with the British film industry on its deathbed, Lee decamped to Hollywood.  He ended up appearing in some big-budget puddings like dire 1977 disaster movie Airport 77 and Steven Spielberg’s supposed comedy 1941 (1979), but at least he was able to hang out with icons like Muhammad Ali and John Belushi.  And he didn’t, strictly speaking, stop appearing in horror movies.  He was in the likes of House of the Long Shadows (1982), The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf (1985), The Funny Man (1994) and Talos the Mummy (1998), although Lee usually made the excuse that these films weren’t really horror ones.


The Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf wasn’t really a horror film?  Aye, right, Sir Chris.  At least you got to snog Sybil Danning in that one.


From @sybildanning


Though he never relented in his workload, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lee experienced a late-term career renaissance – no doubt because many of the nerdish kids who’d sneaked into cinemas or stayed up late in front of the TV to watch his old horror movies had now grown up and become major players in the film industry, and were only too happy to cast him in their movies: Joe Dante, John Landis, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Peter Jackson and Tim Burton.  Hence his roles in two of the biggest franchises in cinematic history, the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings ones.  Burton, meanwhile, ended up casting him in five of his films, though I suspect the only reason he put him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2004) was so that he could have a scene at the end where Lee and Johnny Depp give each other a hug.  Aw!


From zimbio.com


When he was in his eighties, Lee must have wondered if there were any territories left for him to conquer – and he realised that yes, there was one.  Heavy metal!  He had a fine baritone singing voice but only occasionally in his film career, for example, in The Wicker Man and The Return of Captain Invincible (1983), did he get a chance to show it off.  In the mid-noughties, however, he started recording with symphonic / power-metal bands Rhapsody of Fire and Manowar and soon after he was releasing his own metal albums such as Charlemagne: By the Sword and the Cross and Charlemagne: The Omens of Death, which had contributions by guitarist Hedras Ramos and Judas Priest’s Richie Faulkner.  He also released two collections of Christmas songs, done heavy-metal style.  Yuletide will never seem the same after you’ve heard Lee thundering his way through The Little Drummer Boy with electric guitars caterwauling in the background.


Obviously, the heavy metal community, which sees itself as a crowd of badasses, was flattered when the cinema’s supreme badass – Lord Summerisle, Dracula, Fu Manchu, Rasputin, etc. – elected to join them and they welcomed Lee with open arms.  They even gave him, as the genre’s oldest practitioner, the Spirit of Metal Award at the Metal Hammer Golden Gods ceremony in 2010.  And the other evening, when Alice Cooper received the Legend Award at Kerrang magazine’s yearly awards, he dedicated his win to the just-departed Sir Chris.


(c) Charlemagne Productions Ltd


So was there anything this man couldn’t do?  Well, it seems the only thing he couldn’t quite manage was to live forever.  Mind you, for someone who spent his cinema career dying – even when he was in his mid-fifties, he claimed in his autobiography that he’d been killed onscreen more times than any other actor in history – but who always returned to perpetrate more villainy, it feels odd to be writing now that Christopher Lee has finally and definitely passed away.


And if anybody wants to congregate in a Carpathian castle after dark and perform a ritual to resurrect the great man, by dousing his ashes in copious amounts of blood (freshly drained from Boris Johnson), I’m up for it.







(c) Seven Keys


Hobbit hatred


(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films


Wow.  These days a lot of people hate hobbits.  I base this statement on the comments posted below a movie review on the Guardian website yesterday.  The review was of the third and final instalment of director Peter Jackson’s trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit, which is set in Tolkien’s imaginary realm of Middle Earth and is about to be released under the title of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.


“Jackson’s just Tolkien the piss!” exclaimed one poster, inventively.  “That’s right, Jackson,” cried another, “your films are of lesser creative merit than a computer game.  How do you sleep, multi-quadrillionaire Peter Jackson, how do you sleep?”  A third lamented, “How does anyone sit through these awful, awful films?”  A fourth, concerned about the fact that there’s still one major item in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth oeuvre that hasn’t yet received the Jackson treatment, pleaded, “Please no Silmarillion, enough is enough!  I can’t stand any more hobbits, elves or orcs.”




All right, I suspect that at least some of those critics of Peter Jackson and his Hobbit movies do actually like hobbits.  In fact, they probably love hobbits – at least, they love the way Tolkien portrayed the hairy-footed little fellows in his book and in its follow-ups, the three volumes that make up the Lord of the Rings saga.  However, they hate what Jackson has done to Tolkien’s books while translating them from page to screen: first with his three Lord of the Rings adaptations, released in 2001, 2002 and 2003; and then with The Hobbit, which he managed somehow to transform from a slim children’s book into three lengthy films that’ve appeared in 2012, 2013 and – just in time for Christmas! – 2014.


The disdain that many fans of Tolkien’s fiction feel for the films was summed up by the author’s son Christopher, who in 2012 informed Le Monde of his low opinion of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy: “They gutted the book, making an action movie for 15-to-25-year-olds.”


Well, I have to say that I was never a fan of Tolkien’s work.  Even when I tackled Lord of the Rings as a teenager I found his prose turgid and his goody-two-shoes characters deeply uninteresting.  His books had nothing that compared with the moral complexity, imaginative detail and genuine out-and-out weirdness of Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast books, a fantasy series published around the same era.


And I find it ironic that Tolkien Junior accuses Jackson of cheapening the stories by aiming them at ’15-to-25-year-olds’.  I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who raved about how good the Lord of the Rings books were who wasn’t older than 15.  Indeed, the only period of my life when I regularly bumped into Lord of the Rings enthusiasts was when I was attending Peebles High School.  Okay, I do remember talking to a thirty-something science teacher one day and he suddenly started gushing too about the greatness of Tolkien.  But you could argue that, being a teacher, he was also still at school.  And mentally, that particular teacher didn’t seem to be older than 15 anyway.


However, I consider literature to be a more complicated and more profound medium than cinema.  And although a story may seem shallow and perfunctory when it’s told in written language, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll be ineffective when it’s retold in the less demanding medium of sound and images that greets you every time you enter a cinema or sit down in front of a DVD.  And for me, Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit work perfectly well as movies.  They’re no more works of art than the books on which they’re based, but they’re quite palatable as two-to-three-hour viewing experiences where you can enjoy the performances of some great actors and actresses, the stunning New Zealand scenery and the obvious flair Peter Jackson has for orchestrating action and spectacle.  There’s too much CGI in them, of course, but that goes without saying these days.


New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 


That said, I wasn’t a big fan of the third Lord of the Rings movie, The Return of the King – mainly because it was ruined by a tedious final half-hour that consisted of a parade of characters saying farewell to one another or marrying one another.  When Aragorn tied the knot with Arwen, and Arwen appeared in her bridal costume, somebody sitting close to me in the cinema exclaimed, “Liv Tyler looks just like a gerbil!”  And do you know what?  She did.


The Hobbit movies in particular have had brickbats hurled at them because of the accusation that Jackson has unnecessarily padded out a short book to make three big, and presumably money-spinning, movies out of it.  No doubt this is true – The Hobbit trilogy could easily have been condensed into two films, or even into one – but I’m not particularly bothered.  I find the films entertaining and I’m not going to condemn something for having the temerity to entertain me.


As I said above, I particularly like the films’ casts.  Tolkien’s characters may seem leaden on the page but distinguished performers like Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Ian Holm, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch and Christopher Lee have managed to breathe some proper life into them.  It’s particularly gratifying to see the 92-year-old Lee get another opportunity to display his acting chops – even if he was too frail to make the journey to the film-shoot in New Zealand and had to be filmed in Britain instead, with his image being digitally woven into the action later on.


One thing I find interesting about the Hobbit movies is the hierarchy of accents that the filmmakers have bestowed upon the inhabitants of Middle Earth.  The more superior beings in Tolkien’s milieu – i.e. the wizards and the elves – seem to make their proclamations in an imperious Received Pronunciation.  The hobbits sound less posh but they communicate in a reasonably well-spoken Standard English.  That doesn’t surprise me really, as the Shire has always struck me as a ghastly, nicey-nice middle-class ghetto in the suburbs of Middle Earth where the main reading matter is probably the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.


New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 

 New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films 


However, the dwarves – at least, the more prominent ones – seem to be mostly Scottish or Irish, with actors from north of the border and from across the Irish Sea like Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, James Nesbitt and Aidan Turner talking in the films in the way they’d talk in real life.  I’m told that Billy Connolly will pop up in The Battle of the Five Armies playing, yes, another dwarf.  (On the other hand, the dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield – or as he’s described by my girlfriend, ‘the hot dwarf’ – is played by Richard Armitage, who’s from Leicester in England.)


Now is this not a little prejudiced?  Isn’t it a little off to assume that if you’re a dwarf, a non-royal dwarf anyway, with a big nose, a gi-normous beard and a fondness for working deep down in the mines, you ought to sound Celtic?  I admit that one of the wizards, Radogast the Brown, is played by another Scottish actor, Sylvester McCoy.  But it was made plain in the first Hobbit movie that Radogast eats magic mushrooms and is permanently covered in bird-shit.


Having lived for many years in Ireland and Scotland, I can safely say that I’ve met hardly anyone in either country who has a big nose, a gi-normus beard, an appetite for magic mushrooms and a disdain for personal hygiene that makes them neglect to rub bird-shit off themselves.  Well, I’ve met a few people like that, but not many.  Well, not that many.


On the other hand, while Jackson seems happy to let Stott, McTavish, Nesbitt and co. blether away in their native accents, I think it’s sad that he won’t let the leading elf actors – i.e. Cate Blanchett as Galadriel and Hugo Weaving as Elrond – speak in their native accent, which is Australian.  Maybe Jackson does this out of spite.  I know how New Zealanders feel about Australians.


Frankly, I’d love it if, in the midst of some Middle-Earth excitement, Cate Blanchett turned around to Ian McKellen and exclaimed: “Strewth, Gandalf, you ol’ baaastard!  Those blaady orc bogans from beyond the back stump are givin’ us a gobful.  Do we bail out or stay ‘n’ give ’em a rip-snorter of a battle?”


(c) New Line Cinema / MGM / Wingnut Films


Have I got Whos for you 2


 (c) BBC


The 1980s began with Doctor Who regarded as a much-loved and popular British institution.  By the end of that decade, it had the reputation of being a sad and embarrassing joke, watched only by the sort of male fan-geek who still lived with his parents, had personal hygiene problems and had never kissed a girl.  Many lay the blame for this at the door of John Nathan-Turner, who became the show’s producer in 1980 and stayed in the post for the next nine years.  Nathan-Turner certainly made mistakes, though it’s arguable that by keeping the show in the headlines – he had a great talent for publicity stunts and gimmicks – he helped it survive longer than it otherwise would have done.


Nathan-Turner’s initial instincts were sound enough, which were to tone down the amount of comedy in the show and get rid of horridly-cute robot dog K9.  He also employed a new script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, who was keen on using stories that both explored new developments in science (e.g. tachyons) and were imaginative – indeed, one of Bidmead’s scripts was inspired by the M.C. Escher picture Castrovalva.  Mind you, on his watch, the scripts got a bit too earnest.


However, the list of things that John Nathan-Turner got wrong is a long one.  He scrapped the show’s wonderfully eerie theme music (which was still recognisable as the one fashioned by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in the early 1960s) and replaced it with a snazzy 1980s-style version that today sounds dated in the way that only 1980s music can.  The show’s incidental music also became dinky and garish in a peculiarly 1980s way, to the point where, nowadays, there are episodes from that era available on youtube that I can’t stomach because they’re so unlistenable.  Also, fatally, at a time when TV drama was becoming increasingly flashy-looking and cinematic, he left the filming of the show to a number of bog-standard, old-school TV directors, with the result that it often looked very flat and stagy indeed.


But for me Nathan-Turner’s worst mistake was to make the show more for its hard-core fans than for a mass audience.  It always had dedicated fans who bought all the memorabilia – in my childhood I owned Doctor Who annuals, models, painting kits and most of the novelisations of past adventures published by Target Books; I even pestered my long-suffering grandmother into knitting me a Tom Baker-era Doctor Who scarf.  But the show was massively popular among casual TV viewers too.  In fact, during the 1970s, while Star Trek fans gathered in huge conventions and acquired their own nickname (‘Trekkies’), Doctor Who fans were a much less visible, much more underground tribe.  The show had an official fan club, but it was run from a bedroom in Edinburgh by a lone teenager called Keith Miller, who managed to knock out an occasional Xeroxed newsletter.  (Miller has written two memoirs about his experiences as club organiser and, amusingly, he mentions that a young, rival Doctor Who fan in Glasgow kept trying to wrest control of the club from him.  The name of this Glaswegian would-be usurper was Peter Capaldi, of whom we will hear more later.)


Aware that by the 1980s Doctor Who fandom was taking on the trappings of a cult, Nathan-Turner increasingly tailored the show for those fans.  At every opportunity he popped in fan-pleasing references to past Doctors, companions, monsters and storylines – often things that only diehard fans could remember.  Thus, the programme became increasingly impenetrable for non-fans, even though they made up the majority of the TV viewing audience.  And, consequently, high ratings became a thing of the past.


After one year with Nathan-Turner at the helm, the mighty Tom Baker left the show and was replaced by Peter Davison, who’s probably my least favourite Doctor.  Baker was always going to be a hard act, if not an impossible one, to follow, but I couldn’t understand why his replacement should be someone as young and bland as Davison was at the time.  He was best known for playing Tristran Farnon, one of the vets in the wholesome Sunday-evening drama All Creatures Great and Small, and once he stepped into the Tardis he quickly, sneeringly became known as ‘the Vet in Space’.   (No offence to Davison – I’ve seen him, middle-aged, in more recent shows like The Last Detective and thought he was good.  He was just too young in 1981 to give the role much gravity.)


(c) BBC


In 1984 Davison gave way to Colin Baker, whom I thought was a far better choice.  For one thing, the second Baker tried to steer the character back to the abrasive and irascible one played by the original actor in the role, William Hartnell.  This approach worked well in dark, satiric adventures like Vengeance on Varos (a commentary on the then-topical ‘video nasties’ scare, written by Philip Martin, who’d been responsible for the surreal crime show Gangsters) and Revelation of the Daleks (a reworking of the Evelyn Waugh book The Loved One, which for a change was shot by a talented director, Graeme Harper).  Unfortunately, my positive opinion of Colin Baker is a minority one and most people regard him as the worst Doctor ever, the George Lazenby of the franchise.  What ruined his portrayal was the decision – another misjudgement by John Nathan-Turner – that he should wear a multi-coloured and jaw-droppingly ugly overcoat.  This was intended to make him appear more alien, but it had the result of making his Doctor very hard to take seriously.


Meanwhile, the BBC’s upper echelons were getting sick of the show.  Michael Grade, BBC1’s Controller during the 1980s, made no secret of his loathing for science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular and he did his best to sabotage it – cutting its budget, taking it off the air for an 18-month hiatus, ordering it to tone down its violence (Mary Whitehouse had been complaining again) and making Nathan-Turner sack Colin Baker.  He also moved the show from its traditional Saturday-teatime slot and broadcast it on weekday evenings, where it ended up against Coronation Street, rival channel ITV’s über-soap opera.  Coronation Street, in fact, was the Death-star of ITV programming.


By this time I was at college.  I, and a number of my (male) friends, still watched the show, partly out of nostalgia for how good it’d seemed in the 1970s, partly because there was still the occasional, decent story, and partly – brace yourselves for a sexist confession – because we fancied the Doctor’s female travelling companions.  Feminists derided Doctor Who because, traditionally, the female supporting cast had existed only to look pretty, scream at the monsters, twist their ankles whilst running away from those monsters, listen to large amounts of plot exposition and tell the Doctor how clever he was.  From the mid-1970s, though, the producers had tried to introduce female companions who at least walked a line between being eye-candy and being characters who matched, or nearly matched, the Doctor in terms of intelligence or attitude: the much-loved Elisabeth Sladen, who played the smart and sassy journalist, Sarah-Jane Smith, and then actresses Louise Jameson, Mary Tamm, Lalla Ward and Janet Fielding.  By the mid-1980s, the companion was the super-bosomly Nichola Bryant.  I didn’t like her much because she was a throwback, wet in manner and screaming a lot, but her physical attributes at least kept the Dads and male students watching.


Unfathomably – another disastrous Nathan-Turner miscalculation – the next companion was comic actress Bonnie Langford, best known for playing shrill obnoxious schoolgirl Violet Elizabeth Bott in a 1970s TV series based on Richmal Crompton’s Just William stories.  When she joined Doctor Who, Langford’s persona was still shrill and bratty and, thanks to her stick-thin frame, she remained child-like in appearance.  All those Dads and lads switched off forever.


In 1987 Sylvester McCoy, the first Scottish actor to take on the role, became the seventh Doctor and at this point I gave up.  McCoy is another actor I like, but with the grating Bonnie Langford sharing the Tardis with him, with the budget now apparently non-existent and with the stories appallingly written and going for a camp approach – I don’t mean ‘camp’ as in ‘flamboyantly gay’, but ‘camp’ as in ‘so-bad-it’s-entertaining’, like in the old Batman and Wonder Women TV series – I found the show too painful to continue with.  People tell me that later the show improved, with a feisty new companion (Sophie Aldred) replacing Langford and a new script editor, Andrew Cartmel, hiring talented writers like Ben Aaronovitch, future author of the Rivers of London novels, and the Scottish playwright Rona Munro, but I’d had enough.  When the BBC cancelled the show in 1989, I didn’t even notice.


Incidentally, one person who’s a big fan of the seventh Doctor is Peter Jackson, New Zealand director of the Lord of the Rings movies.  Rumour has it that Jackson owns his own seventh-Doctor costume and he made a point of casting McCoy as Radagast the Brown in the Hobbit trilogy.  Jackson has even offered to direct an episode of Doctor Who, provided the BBC give him a Dalek as payment.  Nothing has so far come of Jackson’s proposition – maybe the parsimonious BBC can’t spare the Dalek.


(c) BBC

Ironically, just as the BBC was pulling down the shutters on Doctor Who, another big TV science-fiction franchise was returning to the small screen.  In the USA, twenty years after Star Trek had first appeared on American television, Star Trek: the Next Generation made its debut with a brand new cast.  Such was its success that it spawned three further Star Trek series, with three further casts, which extended the franchise into the 21st century.  Once Doctor Who’s blood had been wiped off the BBC’s floorboards, executives there must’ve begun to wonder if they’d actually killed a potential cash-cow – and indeed, if there was not some way that cash-cow couldn’t be revived, and of course, milked, in the not-too-distant future.  The problem was finance.  A big TV sci-fi series in the 1990s required convincing, i.e. expensive, special effects, which was going to be a problem for the always cash-strapped BBC, whose low-budget special effects for Doctor Who might have been serviceable in the 1960s and 1970s but looked positively embarrassingly by the 1980s.  If the BBC was going to re-launch the show, it would have to do so in partnership with someone who had money.


The first attempt at a revival came in 1996 with a one-off BBC-American co-production called Doctor Who – The Movie.  With committee-rooms of suited American executives clamouring to have their say about how the new Who should be, whilst knowing absolute zilch about the old show, it could have been abysmal.  I’ve heard rumours that Steven Spielberg, whose company Amblin International was involved at one point in the re-launch, wanted the Doctor played by Michael Crawford, famous in the US at the time for playing the lead in Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s musical version of The Phantom of the Opera.  In the UK, Crawford was known to everyone for playing the beret-wearing, dim-witted, effeminate and utterly disaster-prone Frank Spencer in the 1970s sitcom Some Mothers do ’ave ’em; and the sight of Frank Spencer emerging from the Tardis would surely have killed off the show for British audiences, forever.  The finished effort actually starred Liverpudlian actor Paul McGann as a melancholic-faced, Byronic-looking and fairly credible Doctor and it wasn’t that bad.  It managed to get respectable viewing figures when it was shown in Britain, but it failed to make a splash in America, which destroyed its chances of earning a spin-off TV series.


(c) BBC / 20th Century Fox


The mistake made by the makers of Doctor Who – The Movie was not, as might be expected, because it strayed too far from the show’s mythology, but because it stuck too close to it.  In its first minute a voice-over managed to refer to the Master, Daleks and Time Lords, which must have mystified those crucial American TV viewers, 99.9% of whom knew nothing about the original show.  Another well-meaning nod to continuity, to keep old fans happy, was that the movie started off with Sylvester McCoy still playing the seventh Doctor and had him regenerate into the eighth, McGann, twenty minutes in.  Any Americans still watching by that point probably switched off in bafflement.


Fortunately, when the next attempt was made to revive the series, the person at the helm was Russell T. Davies – a man who knew what the pitfalls were and knew how to avoid them.


To be continued.