Great British crime movies of the 1970s

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer

 

I’ve been busy lately and unable to post much on this blog.  Here’s a reposting of something that first appeared here in 2019.

 

During the 1970s, when I was a kid and when I absorbed cultural influences like a sponge, crime movies made in the United Kingdom were rarer than hen’s teeth.  That’s hardly surprising.  During that decade, the British film industry practically died on its arse.

 

And yet, as a kid, I got the impression that 1970s Britain was so crime-ridden it was dystopian.  It was a place where every bank and security van was in constant danger of being attacked by beefy men with sawn-off shotguns and stockings pulled over their heads.  Where every street was the potential scene of a violent punch-up and every road was the potential scene of a destructive car chase.  Where the police force scarcely seemed any better than the villains, its ranks composed of hard-boozing, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed thugs wearing kipper ties.  Really, at times, I must’ve been too afraid to leave my house.

 

This is because 1970s British television was awash with crime and cop shows, often violent and populated by low-life characters on both sides of the law: for example, Special Branch (1969-74), Villains (1972), New Scotland Yard (1972-74), The Sweeney (1975-78), Gangsters (1975-78), The XYY Man (1976-77), Target (1977-78), Out (1978), Hazell (1978-79) and Strangers (1978-82).  Impressionable kids like me would act out things we’d seen on TV the night before, so that at breaktimes school playgrounds reverberated with shouts of “You’re nicked, sunshine!” and “You grassed me off, you slag!” and “We’re the Sweeney, son, and we haven’t had any dinner!”  My parents were happy to let me watch such programmes.  As long as I wasn’t watching that horror rubbish, which had been scientifically proven to be bad for you.

 

I suppose that many British directors, writers and actors who would have plied their trade on the big screen, if Britain’s film industry hadn’t been moribund, found themselves plying it on the small screen instead.  This helped inject some uncompromising cinematic rawness into the domestic TV crime genre.  But the cinematic counterpart of that genre seemed non-existent.

 

Well, almost non-existent.  A few crime movies did get made in 1970s Britain and these exert a fascination for me today.  Only two of them ever achieved a degree of fame and the rest are virtually forgotten, but I find all of them cherish-able.  Here are my favourites.

 

© MGM EMI

 

Get Carter (1970)

Everyone knows this 1970s British crime film, although I don’t recall it getting much attention until the 1990s, when thanks to Britpop, Damien Hirst, etc., the ‘cool Britannia’ scene took off and Get Carter’s star Michael Caine suddenly became a retro-style icon.  Ironically, Caine’s nattily dressed Jack Carter and Roy Budd’s edgy jazz score aside, there isn’t much in the Mike Hodges-directed Get Carter that feels stylish.  The drab, monochrome terraced streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne – if the film’s premise is that Michael Caine has returned to his hometown to sort out trouble, whatever happened to Caine’s Geordie accent? – the shabby pubs, the seedy racecourses, the shit clothes and haircuts, the Neanderthal attitudes…  It’s depressing, actually.  It’s a provincial Britain where the Swinging Sixties have truly burned themselves out – if the Swinging Sixties ever reached provincial Britain in the first place.

 

Caine gets all the acting accolades for Get Carter but the film wouldn’t be what it is without its excellent supporting cast: Alun Armstrong, Britt Ekland, George Sewell, Tony Beckley and playwright and occasional actor John Osborne.  Best of all, there’s Ian Hendry as the film’s weasly villain, Eric Paice.  “Do you know,” Carter tells Paice at one point, “I’d almost forgotten what your eyes look like.  They’re still the same.  Piss-holes in the snow.”  Hendry was originally meant to play the virile Carter, but by 1970 his fondness for the booze had taken its toll and he was demoted to the secondary role of Paice, which supposedly caused tension and resentment during filming.  Thus, Caine may have enjoyed the irony of the film’s climax, which sees Carter force-feed Paice a bottle of whisky before clubbing him to death with a shotgun.

 

Villain (1971)

Villain has Richard Burton, no less, in the role of a gay, mother-fixated and paranoidly violent gang-boss who, against the counsel of wiser heads, gets himself involved in a raid on a factory’s wages van that ultimately causes his downfall.  Meanwhile, trying to stay in one piece is Ian McShane, playing a smooth but unimportant pimp who has the unenviable job of being both the object of Burton’s affections and the victim of his sadistic rages.

 

Villain also has a wonderful supporting cast – T.P. McKenna and Joss Ackland as fellow gang-bosses, Del Henney, John Hallam and (alas, the recently-departed) Tony Selby as henchmen, and Nigel Davenport and Colin Welland as the coppers doggedly trying to bring Burton to justice.  (Interestingly, McKenna, Henney and Welland all turned up in the cast of Sam Peckinpah’s troubling Straw Dogs, made the following year.)  The film suffers from having too many sub-plots, though the one where McShane helps Burton escape the law by getting a sleazy Member of Parliament who’s used his pimping services to testify for him is memorably believable and nauseating.  Played by Donald Sinden, you never hear which political party the MP belongs to, but you can guess.

 

Sitting Target (1972)

Ian McShane had to suffer some dysfunctional relationships in early 1970s British crime movies.  No sooner had he finished being Richard Burton’s lover / punchbag in Villain than he had to cope with being best friend to a psychotic Oliver Reed in Sitting Target, directed by the underrated Douglas Hickox.  With McShane in tow, Reed escapes from prison early in the film, determined to catch up with his wife Jill St John and give her what’s coming to her.  Reed doesn’t want revenge on St John, as you might expect, for her terrible performance as Tiffany Case in Diamonds are Forever (1971).  No, it’s because he’s discovered she’s betrayed him for another man.  The film’s big twist, when we find out who that other man is, isn’t altogether a surprise.

 

Sitting Target has many pleasures, including Edward Woodward playing a policeman assigned to protect St John against the marauding Ollie.  But nothing quite matches the thrilling early sequence where our two anti-heroes, plus a third convict played by the always-entertaining character actor Freddie Jones, bust out of prison in desperate, skin-of-the-teeth fashion.

 

The Offence (1972)

Okay, Sidney Lumet’s The Offence (which I’ve previously devoted a whole blog-entry to) isn’t really a crime movie.  It’s a psychological study of a macho but troubled police officer (Sean Connery) going over the edge when a hunt for a child-killer, and the provocations of the suspect the police have pulled in for questioning (Ian Bannon), push too many buttons on his damaged psyche.  But the film has that grim 1970s aesthetic that more conventional British crime movies of the period are so fond of – drab housing estates, anonymous tower blocks, serpentine pedestrian bridges.  Its supporting cast also includes strapping character actor John Hallam who, although he’s probably best remembered as Brian Blessed’s Hawkman sidekick in 1980’s Flash Gordon, was a fixture in crime movies at this time.  So, I’m putting The Offence on my list.

 

© American International Pictures

 

Hennessy (1975)

I’m also conflicted about adding Don Sharpe’s Hennessy to this list because it’s about terrorism rather than crime.  Indeed, its story of a former IRA explosive expert (Rod Steiger) who decides to destroy the British government and the Queen by blowing up the state opening of parliament after his wife and child are killed by the British Army, makes it the first movie to tackle the issue of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.  However, as the final film on the list is choc-a-bloc with IRA men, and as Richard Johnson gives a lovely performance as the weary, dishevelled, cynical copper – is there any other type in British crime movies? – trying to thwart Steiger’s plan, I thought I’d give it a mention.

 

The film is admittedly patchy but it has a top-notch cast that also includes Lee Remick, Trevor Howard, Eric Porter, John Hallam (again), Patrick Stewart (bald as a coot even then) and a super-young Patsy Kensit playing Steiger’s ill-fated daughter.  The climactic scenes set in the House of Commons, involving the Queen, landed the filmmakers in hot water because they used real footage that Buckingham Palace had approved without knowing it was going to end up in a film.  Also, the film’s subject, an incredibly touchy one at the time, meant that Hennessy scarcely saw the light of day in British cinemas.

 

Brannigan (1975)

Brannigan – also directed by Douglas Hickox – is the joker in this pack.  It features John Wayne as a tough American cop who arrives in a London of bowler hats, brollies and historic landmarks that exists only in the imagination of Hollywood scriptwriters, and who then causes mayhem as he behaves like a Wild West sheriff dealing with an unruly frontier town.  This involves such memorable sequences as Wayne doing an Evel Knievel-style car stunt where he hops across Tower Bridge while it parts to let  a ship pass below.  And Wayne triggering a cowboy-style brawl in a pub near Leadenhall Market.  And Wayne roughing up a minor villain played by the cinema’s greatest Yorkshireman, Brian Glover.  (“Now would you like to try for England’s free dental care or answer my question?”)  If you’re in the wrong mood, Brannigan is the worst film ever made.  If you’re in the right mood, it’s the best one.

 

© United Artists

 

The Squeeze (1977)

Barely had John Wayne swaggered through the London underworld than another Hollywood star did too in Michael Apted’s The Squeeze – Stacy Keach, although playing an English private eye with an industrial-strength drink problem. During occasional moments of sobriety, Keach investigates the kidnapping of his ex-wife (Carol White).  She’s remarried a posh security officer (Edward Fox) tasked with overseeing the delivery of large sums of money.  Keach finds himself tangling with a kidnap gang planning to force Fox to help them mount an armed robbery.

 

The Squeeze suffers from being overlong, with too much time spent wallowing in Keach’s alcoholism. But its good points outweigh this.  I like its depiction of late 1970s multicultural London and its sympathetic portrayal of Keach’s Jamaican neighbours.  Also, Stephen Boyd (who died soon after the film’s completion, aged just 45) and David Hemmings give good turns as the villains.  Allowed to use his native Northern Irish accent for a change, Boyd disturbingly plays a well-heeled crime-lord who dotes over his own family whilst having zero empathy for the family he’s threatening to destroy with his kidnapping scheme.  Meanwhile, Hemmings is good as a pragmatic career criminal who doesn’t share his boss’s sunny optimism about things.

 

And connoisseurs of 1970s British popular culture will be fascinated to see anarchic comedian Freddie Starr play Keach’s best mate, a reformed criminal trying to make a living as a taxi driver. Indeed, such is Starr’s loyalty to Keach that he saves his neck three times at the end of the film, including by running the villains off the road in his taxi.  Starr, who died in 2019, was from all accounts an unreconstructed arsehole in real life.  Therefore, remember him this way.

 

© Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Sweeney II (1978)

The greatest of all 1970s British cop shows, The Sweeney got two movie spin-offs, Sweeney! In 1977 and Sweeney II.  I don’t think Sweeney!, which involved Flying Squad heroes Jack Regan (John Thaw) and George Carter (Dennis Waterman) in an espionage plot, is much cop, but Sweeney II captures the spirit of the TV series.  It has Regan and Carter on the trail of a gang who spend most of their time living it up in Malta as wealthy British ex-pats, but who return to Britain from time to time to stage vicious, take-no-prisoners bank robberies.  As well as marrying bloody, sawn-off-shotgun-powered violence with some off-the-wall humour, Sweeney II manages to be topical too.  London’s real Metropolitan Police force was investigated for corruption in the late 1970s.  The film reflects this with the character of Regan’s commanding officer, played by the excellent Denholm Elliot, who’s facing a long stretch in prison on account of being “so bent it’s been impossible to hang his pictures straight on the office wall for the past twelve months.”

 

The Long Good Friday (1980)

Although it was released at the start of the 1980s, John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday was made in 1979 and so I’m classifying it as a 1970s film.  It definitely feels the end of a particular era with its tale of an old school London gangster (Bob Hoskins) convinced he’s about to make a mint in the brave new world of Thatcherite London where everything is up for sale to the corporations and developers.  That’s until one day when he suddenly finds himself tangling with a ruthless foe, the IRA, who make him look hopelessly out of his depth.

 

The final scene sees Hoskins become a prisoner in his own, hijacked car and get driven to his doom – an IRA man played by a youthful Pierce Brosnan snakes up from behind the front passenger seat to hold him at gunpoint.  Although Hoskins doesn’t speak, the succession of emotions that flit across his face as it dawns on him that he had it all, but now he’s blown it all, make this the most powerful moment in British crime-movie history.

 

© Black Lion Films / Handmade Films / Paramount British Pictures

Tears of an ermine gown

 

From the Daily Record

 

For reasons of preserving my sanity, I’ve avoided writing about politics lately.  That includes the politics of my old homeland, Scotland.  However, I feel compelled to type a few words on the topic thanks to the coverage given to a recent interview with Jack McConnell.  Oops, sorry, I’ve misnamed him.  It should be Baron Jack McConnell of Glenscorrodale.  The twitter handle he’s given himself is @LordMcConnell, so evidently these titles are important to him.  Baron McConnell was First Minister of Scotland from 2001 to 2007 and the last First Minister to belong to the Scottish Labour Party.

 

Last week, Baron McConnell was interviewed in the Scottish current affairs magazine Holyrood and had plenty to say about the current state of Scottish politics which, since he was nudged out of power by Alex Salmond’s Scottish National Party in 2007, have been dominated by the SNP.  The Baron is not happy at what he sees.  He laments that nothing has changed in Scotland since the 2014 referendum on independence (which, of course, his side won), laments that modern Scottish politics has ‘no public debate and no public accountability’, and pines for the good old days ‘of ministers doing their jobs well’.

 

Indeed, so strongly does he feel that at one point the interviewer notes, “McConnell’s voice starts to break and his eyes well up.”  “Sorry,” he says, “I’m feeling quite emotional about it right now…  I genuinely feel like we are stuck in treacle and I don’t know how we get out of it.”

 

Commentators in Scotland’s (heavily unionist) mainstream media have seized upon the article as both an articulation and confirmation of all that’s ghastly about modern-day Scotland, which has had the SNP in power for the past 14 years now and is currently under the First Ministership of Nicola Sturgeon.  In the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times, for instance, pundit Kenny Farquharson wrote, “I challenge anyone, of any political stripe, to read this interview with Jack McConnell and not find themselves agreeing with at least some of his analysis of where Scotland finds itself right now.”  And in the New Statesman, Chris Deerin opined about Jack – sorry, Baron! – McConnell’s outpouring, “Coming from a politician who is known for his optimism and problem-solving approach, and who rarely lacks a twinkle in his eye, the anguish is all the more powerful.  And it is very hard to disagree with anything.”

 

Incidentally, Deerin has form in lambasting Scotland’s prevailing political orthodoxy.  In 2015, in the right-wing online news outlet CapX, he wrote that the place “has become a soft and sappy nation, intellectually listless, coddled, a land of received wisdom and one-track minds, narrow parameters and mass groupthink…  It is certainly the viewpoint that dominates our polity and media – an unholy alliance of Nationalists, Greens and socialists. I’m sure many consider themselves to be all three.”  I find it mind-melting that the left-leaning New Statesman saw fit to make him its Scotland Editor.

 

Baron McConnell apparently bewails a lack of vision in modern Scottish politics, though I’m surprised that someone with his broad vision doesn’t acknowledge the fact that in the last decade, by way of being part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has had to deal with the austerity cuts imposed by David Cameron and George Osborne, and then the vote to leave the European Union (powered by anti-European votes in England – every part of Scotland voted to remain in the EU) and its ongoing, toxic legacy, and the Covid-19 epidemic.  Not to mention that the UK as a whole is currently governed by a set of Conservative politicians whose moral compass seems to be the same one that Al Capone referred to in the 1920s.  I doubt even a Scottish government with impeccable Unionist / Labour credentials headed by the noble Baron himself would appear particularly dynamic having all that to contend with.  So, it seems a bit myopic of him to overlook it.  Unless, of course, he’s just being disingenuous.

 

From angelfire.com

 

Also, when I think back to the supposed golden age of public debate, and public accountability, and ministers doing their jobs well, and not being stuck in treacle – i.e., Baron McConnell’s tenure as First Minister – I can’t remember much that was outstanding.  Well, apart from the ban on smoking in public places, the first such ban implemented in one of the constituent nations of the UK, which made life pleasanter and healthier for non-smokers like myself who liked to visit the pub sometimes.  But otherwise, I just remember him making an arse of himself by wearing a pinstriped kilt to a charity fashion show in New York in 2004.  (Even my old Dad, not normally one to get worked up about Scottish politics, exclaimed, “Christ, what an embarrassment!”).  Oh, and a stushie about him and his family holidaying in Majorca with Kirsty Wark, a senior journalist at the supposedly impartial BBC.  And his enthusiasm for promoting Public Finance Initiatives which, by 2016, were projected to cost Scottish taxpayers some 30 billion pounds during the decades to come.  And the fact that one year he returned 1.5 billion pounds of devolved money to the London treasury, when there were clearly things in Scotland he could have spent it on.

 

Still, Baron McConnell must have fond memories of those years.  A staunch Blairite, he had the satisfaction of knowing his smiley, warmongering hero was ensconced in Number Ten, Downing Street.  Also, the Labour Party was massively powerful in Scottish local politics, and it held the lion’s share of Scottish seats in the Westminster Parliament too.  Labour were the top dogs in Scotland.  This was their territory.  No wonder political commentators joked that Labour votes in Scotland were weighed rather than counted; and in Glasgow you could stick a red rosette on a monkey and it’d get voted into Westminster.

 

Actually, looking at the evidence, the red rosette / monkey scenario must have actually happened in a number of cases.  I’m thinking of such specimens as Lanark and Hamilton East’s one-time Labour MP Jimmy Hood, who once declared he’d oppose Scottish independence even if it made the Scottish people better off – the fact that as an MP he was busy claiming £1000-a-month second-home expenses in London no doubt had something to do with his keenness to keep Westminster running the show.  And Midlothian’s David Hamilton, who in 2015 did his bit for the battle against sexism by describing Nicola Sturgeon (and her hairstyle) as “the wee lassie with a tin helmet on”.  And Glasgow South West’s Ian Davidson, who charmingly predicted that after 2014’s referendum on Scottish independence the debate would carry on only “in the sense there is a large number of wounded still to be bayoneted”.  This shower became known as the ‘low-flying Jimmies’ because of their lack of ambition in anything other than being cannon-fodder for Labour at Westminster and enjoying all the perks that came with being MPs.  And with numpties like these populating the Westminster opposition benches during the 1980s and 1990s, it’s no surprise Mrs Thatcher’s Tories had a free run to do whatever they liked in Scotland.

 

Yes, I know, in 1999, early in Blair’s premiership, Labour did set up the devolved Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.  But I’m sure it was seen as a means of keeping additional numbers of loyal Scottish Labour Party hacks in lucrative employment and was designed not to rock the boat in any way for London.  The Scottish parliament was organised so that no party (i.e., the SNP) could never win an outright majority in it and its ruling executive would always have to be a coalition.  And the biggest party in any coalition, Blair and co. assumed, would always be the Scottish Labour Party.

 

It was a shock for Labour when in 2007 the SNP won the biggest number of seats in the Scottish parliament, eschewed coalitions and ran Scotland for the next four years as a minority administration.  It was an even bigger shock for them when in 2011 the SNP achieved the impossible and managed to win an overall majority of seats there.  Hadn’t Labour’s finest minds arranged things so that this would never happen?  And things got even worse in 2015 when, with the Scottish party led by the hapless Jim Murphy, Labour lost 40 of its 41 MPs to the SNP in a Westminster election.  Yes, it must’ve been tough for poor old Labour to witness all that.  There’s nothing worse than having a sense of entitlement and then not getting what you believe you’re entitled to.

 

From unsplash.com / © Serena Repice Lentini

 

Baron McConnell is a good example of a particularly rotten aspect of the Scottish Labour experience.  Secure a seat in the London or Edinburgh parliaments, follow orders, doff your cap to your masters, and after a few decades of loyal service you’ll get the ultimate reward – a peerage.  Scotland was meant to be not only Labour’s stomping ground, its fiefdom, but also its station of departure for a gravy train running all the way to the House of Lords.  These days, in the Lords, the second largest legislative chamber in the world after the Chinese National People’s Congress – which is about as democratic – the good Baron of Glenscorrodale gets to rub ermine-clad shoulders with such other Scottish Labour luminaries as Baron George Foulkes of Cumnock, Baron George Robertson of Port Ellon and Baron Alastair Darling of Roulanish.

 

No doubt he also enjoys a chinwag with the Margaret Thatcher-worshipping former Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Forsyth, who was supposedly booted out of power in 1997 – I can’t remember his title, but I assume it’s something like Lord Freddy of Krueger – and another of Chris Deerin’s heroes, the former Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, whom I believe nowadays calls herself Baroness Colonel Davidson of Jar-Jar Binks.  Obviously, there are plenty of former Conservative Party treasurers to fraternise with as well.  Accountability, eh?

 

In the Holyrood interview Baron McConnell talks about how in the Labour party “there was an absolute commitment to the redistributive nature of the UK.”  But isn’t that the real reason for mediocrity and poverty of imagination in Scotland?  Isn’t it the message that Scots have to stay in the UK because their country is a basket case and their wealthy neighbour – well, part of it, London – has to continually redistribute money to them?  Wouldn’t it be wiser in the long run to remove the dependency set-up, through independence, and give Scots the powers to make their own decisions, implement their own courses of action, make their own mistakes and hopefully learn from them?  But that would necessitate dismantling the cosy British constitutional system that the Baron and his friends currently do so well out of.

 

Ironically, there is a part of the UK where the local Labour Party doesn’t feel obligated to kowtow to London and is prepared to do its own thing.  I refer to the Labour Party in Wales, whose leader Mark Drakeford bucked the dismal losing trend set by Labour in England and Scotland and won the biggest number of seats in the Welsh Senedd election earlier this year.  During the Covid-19 pandemic, Drakeford has won plaudits by refusing to work in lockstep with London – which I suspect Baron McConnell would have done, had he still been Scottish First Minister.  Instead, Drakeford has followed his own instincts and implemented health measures he thinks are appropriate for Wales.

 

From wikipedia.org / © Conference of Peripheral Maritime Regions

 

Just the other day, it was announced that Drakeford’s party has come to an agreement with Plaid Cymru, the Welsh pro-independence party, so that legislation can be passed smoothly in almost 50 policy areas.  Could you imagine a similar agreement being reached in Edinburgh?  No way.  Not with the idiotic ‘Bain Principle’ still holding sway, and Scottish Labour being so obsequious to their head office in London, who would frown on any moves by Labour in Scotland that might not play well with voters in England.   Plus, some Scottish Labour members would sooner chainsaw off their legs at the knees than have anything to do with the hated SNP, those frustraters of their sense of entitlement, those derailers of their gravy train.

Spice-world: the movie

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Like everywhere else, one sector in Sri Lanka heavily hit by Covid-19 was the country’s cinemas.  In Colombo, establishments like the Liberty, Savoy and Regal had stood closed-up, empty and silent for so long that I’d begun to doubt if they’d ever open their doors again.  However, with the Sri Lankan Covid-19 death toll down (for now), the authorities have permitted cinemas to reopen, albeit working at a reduced capacity.  During the first half of November, their auditoriums could only be 25% full.  For the month’s second half, the maximum capacity has been increased to 50%.  To do our bit to help Sri Lanka’s beleaguered cinema industry, myself and a mate went a few days ago to the Scope multiplex at Colombo City Centre shopping mall.  There, we watched Dune, this year’s big-budget, Denis Villeneuve-directed adaptation of the famous 1965 science-fiction novel by Frank Herbert.  Or at least, Villeneuve’s adaptation of the first half of it, as Dune is one fat book.

 

And we had no regrets about seeing Dune in a cinema.  It’s a visually majestic creation that needs to be seen on a big screen to be properly appreciated.  In fact, you’ll be committing a minor crime against celluloid if you watch it in reduced form on a TV or laptop screen.  And if you dare to watch it on a phone-screen…  Well, you don’t deserve to live.

 

I have to say, though, that I read Herbert’s novel as a teenager and it was no favourite of mine.  In part, my being unimpressed by it was probably down to bloody-mindedness.  A lot of earnest, nerdy people gushed about how great it was, which probably predisposed me to not liking it.  This was similar to my less-than-enthusiastic reaction to J.R.R. Tolkien’s much-worshipped Lord of the Rings – although unlike Rings, I did read Dune to the end.  (With Rings, I gave up four-fifths of the way through.)  Also, it didn’t help that I read Dune a couple of years after Star Wars (1977) came out.  Many of the book’s plot elements – a scheming galactic empire, a desert planet, an elite sect with psychic powers – had recently featured in George Lucas’s sci-fi / fantasy blockbuster, so they seemed less fresh than they had in 1965.

 

© New English Library

 

Though I found Lord of the Rings overrated on the page, I did enjoy the movies that Peter Jackson made of it in 2001, 2002 and 2003.  Well, apart from the last half-hour of the final one, The Return of the King, which consisted of nothing but various characters getting married.  A second-rate reading experience can, with an excellent cast, a great director and all the epic locations and special effects that Hollywood money can buy, be turned into a first-rate viewing experience.

 

And so it is with Dune.

 

Its cast is wonderful – Oscar Isaac, Rebecca Ferguson, Timothée Shalamet, Stellan Skarsgard, Dave Bautista, Josh Brolin, Jason Mamoa, Charlotte Rampling, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sharon Duncan-Brewster and Javier Bardem – and director Villeneuve has already helmed two of the past decade’s greatest sci-fi movies, Arrival (2016) and Blade Runner 2049 (2017).  And its 165-million-dollar budget has been put to good use.  The filming locations in the UAE and Jordan really do transport you to the film’s main setting, the endlessly sandy and murderously hot desert-planet Arrakis; while the special effects, conjuring up fleets of spacecraft that stand like gigantic, angular cathedrals when they’re parked on planets’ surfaces, but look as tiny and inconsequential as pollen-grains when they’re bobbing in the black void of space, are stunning.  Hence, the absolute necessity to see Dune on a large screen.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Denis Villeneuve, of course, isn’t the first filmmaker to bring Dune to the screen, for an earlier cinematic version of it had appeared in 1984, directed by that genius of visionary weirdness, David Lynch.  The 1984 Dune was a box-office flop and received much abuse from critics – I remember the New Musical Express retitling it Dung – but I didn’t think it was that bad.  Lynch added some delightfully bizarre touches to the story and he arguably had an even better cast of actors than Villeneuve: Kyle MacLachlan, Jurgen Prochnow, Francesca Annis, Kenneth McMillan, Paul Smith, Patrick Stewart, Richard Jordan, Freddie Jones, Sian Phillips, Virginia Madsen, Jack Nance, José Ferrer, Everitt McGill, Brad Dourif, Max von Sydow and the great (and now, sadly, late) Dean Stockwell.  Sting was in it too.

 

Alas, Lynch’s producer was old-school movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, who wanted Dune to be a regulation two-hour movie.  Cramming all the events of Herbert’s doorstop-sized book into that caused massive problems for the script.  Early on, Lynch had wisely envisioned Dune as two movies, and then proposed it as a three-hour film, but this cut no ice with old Dino.

 

I remember going to see Lynch’s Dune at a cinema in Aberdeen with my girlfriend of the time.  Having read the book I was familiar with the plot, which goes like this…  (Beware – spoilers are coming.)  In the distant 102nd century, the galaxy is ruled by an empire that incorporates a number of powerful families, or Houses.  One of these, the House Atreides, headed by the well-meaning Duke Leto (Isaacs in the new Dune, Prochnow in the old one), his ‘concubine’ Lady Jessica (Ferguson now, Annis then) and their son, the young Paul (Chalamet now, MacLachlan then), is entrusted with running the desert-planet Arrakis.  Arrakis is vital for the Empire because a mysterious ‘spice’- in reality a consciousness-expanding drug – is mined there and its properties enable spaceship-navigators to find their way through interstellar space.  The planet’s indigenous inhabitants, the reclusive and Bedouin-like Fremen, are suspicious of the Atreides because previously the Empire had put them under control of another House, the Harkonnen, who treated them genocidally.

 

Before Leto can win hearts and minds on Arrakis, the Harkonnen launch an attack to retake the planet, with the Emperor’s blessing – the whole manoeuvre has been a plot to get rid of the potentially troublesome Atreides.  The Atreides are wiped out, save for Paul and his mother Jessica, who flee into the planet’s deserts.  They now have the formidable task of rallying the distrustful Fremen and persuading them to retake Arrakis from the homicidal Harkonnen – which, in the book’s later stages, they do.

 

Villenueve’s film ends with Paul and Jessica fleeing the Harkonnen – a second Dune movie, which will tell the remaining story, has now been greenlighted.  Poor old Lynch, though, had to squash everything into just over two hours.  I remembering being in an Aberdonian pub after seeing his Dune with my ex-girlfriend, who hadn’t read the book.  I spent about an hour trying to explain the film’s plot to her, which she’d been flummoxed by.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

Villeneuve’s Dune only covers half of the book and is still 19 minutes longer than Lynch’s version, so obviously the story gets more space to breath.  This also enables Villeneuve to do a lot of the important sci-fi business of ‘world-building’.  It’s gratifying too that Dune’s secondary characters, the various soldiers, courtiers and allies of the House Atreides, like Gurney Halleck (Brolin now, Stewart then), Duncan Idaho (Mamoa now, Jordan then), Thufir Hawat (McKinley Henderson now, Jones then) and Dr Liet-Kynes (Duncan-Brewster now, von Sydow then) get much more time to establish themselves and win the audience’s sympathy.  In the compressed 1984 Dune, their roles were brief and their deaths, if they occurred, were blink-and-you’ll-miss-them events.

 

Certain critics have sniped at this new version of Dune for being humourless.  Now while I admit to counting a total of three jokes during the film’s entire 157-minute running time – it’s telling that two of those jokes turn up in the trailer – I have to say I found it refreshing to experience a science fiction film willing to treat its subject matter seriously and not populate it with, say, bumbling comedy droids or wisecracking bipedal rodents.  In effect, those critics are showing their snobbery.  They’re protesting: “But this is just science fiction!  It’s not, it can’t be serious!  You’ve got to have bumbling comedy droids in it!  And wisecracking aliens!”  So, stuff ’em.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

One thing David Lynch’s Dune was memorable for was its depiction of the Harkonnen.  Played by Kenneth McMillan, Paul Smith, Brad Dourif and Sting, they were a grotesque, evilly-perverted bunch – no more so than McMillan’s Baron Harkonnen, who was a levitating, leering sack of pus.  Probably wisely, Villeneuve doesn’t try to out-Lynch Lynch here and makes his Harkonnen a more sombre lot, communicating their malevolence through stillness rather than histrionics.  Stellan Skarsgard is especially effective as a brooding, Brando-esque Baron.

 

I read somewhere that Frank Herbert intended the good guys, the Atreides, to be descended from the Greeks on faraway, long-ago earth, although some visual and verbal references to bullfighting in both his book and Villeneuve’s film suggest they’re Spaniards.  However, when the Duke, his family and courtiers arrive on Arrakis, the film shows them being led out of their spaceship by a bagpiper… which implies they’re actually Scottish.  Well, their home planet’s name is Caladan, which sounds like ‘Caledonia’.  One of them is called Duncan and another is called Gurney – Scots gurn a lot.  And by half-time they’ve already been slaughtered.  So yup, I think they’re Scottish.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

 

One thing I believe makes this version of Dune so good is that, in telling only the book’s first half, it’s a story of tragedy.  And tragedy, as any student of Shakespeare will confirm, is one of the most powerful forms of narrative.  I suspect Villeneuve will find it harder to make the next instalment of Dune, dealing with how Paul marshals his forces and finally restores order on Arrakis, as gripping.  For me, at least, downbeat endings last longer in the imagination than happy ones.

 

Anyway, for now, after Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, Dune completes a science-fictional hat-trick for Villeneuve.  Perhaps it’s not quite as impressive a run as Stanley Kubrick achieved with the sci-fi or sci-fi-related Dr Strangelove (1964), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Clockwork Orange (1972), but it’s still pretty amazing.  Let’s hope he can knock Dune 2 out of the park and make this triumphant threesome a foursome.

 

© Legendary Pictures / Warner Bros. Pictures

Rab Foster clears the foliage

 

© Jim Pitts / Parallel Universe Publications

 

Rab Foster, the pen-name under which I write fantasy fiction, has just had a short story published in the collection Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy, Volume 3.  This is the tenth piece by Mr Foster that’s seen publication in recent years, which I’m pleased, but also surprised about.  I’ve always enjoyed reading fantasy literature by the likes of C. L. Moore, Karl Edward Wagner, Fritz Leiber and Michael Moorcock, but for most of the 21st century I’d assumed there were few outlets where you could get works in the genre published – at least, in its short-story form, which is my speciality.  However, lately, there seems to have been a surge in the number of magazines, ezines and anthologies devoted to fantasy fiction, which has created many new opportunities.  Maybe this is due to the popularity of the Games of Thrones TV series (2011-19).  If so, thanks for that, George R.R. Martin.

 

I’m particularly happy to have a story published in this collection because it’s been put together by David A. Riley and Jim Pitts at Parallel Universe Publications.  Lancastrian artist Jim Pitts has illustrated the volume and I well remember his artwork from 40 years ago when it appeared in a magazine called Fantasy Tales.  As I said in a recent blog-entry, Fantasy Tales was the first publication that I, as a young, aspiring and acne-ridden writer, submitted stories to.  While they weren’t accepted, one of Fantasy Tales’ editors, Dave Sutton, was decent enough to write back and offer advice about how to make my work more organised and presentable.  He told me to leave spaces after punctuation marks when I was typing my manuscripts, so that my sentences didn’t turn into typographical pile-ups.  Also, in an effort to build tension, I employed a lot of one-sentence paragraphs, which hit the protagonists with one revelation after another.  Probably not a good idea, he pointed out, to have six or seven one-sentence paragraphs in a row…

 

I remember Fantasy Tales as a gorgeous-looking little magazine, with Pitt’s colour artwork adorning its cover and his intricate, atmospheric black-and-white illustrations on the pages inside.  Here’s a few examples.

 

© Jim Pitts / Fantasy Tales

© Jim Pitts / Parallel Universe Publications

 

Anyhow, I’m chuffed that one of my stories is sharing a book with Jim Pitts’ artwork at last.

 

Rab Foster’s story in Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy, Volume 3 is entitled The Foliage, and I suspect it’s no coincidence that I started writing it soon after watching the movie In the Earth (2021), a forest-set piece of sci-fi / horror eco-weirdness from filmmaker Ben Wheatley.  The story also owes something to a 1976 Doctor Who adventure called The Seeds of Doom, which featured Tom Baker as the Doctor and a marvellously-deranged Tony Beckley and John Challis (who later became a much-loved comedy actor and who, sadly, died in September this year) as the villains.  I know nerds between the ages of 15 and 70 will argue till the cows come home about what the scariest ever Doctor Who adventure is, but for my money, The Seeds of Doom is the one.

 

Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy, Volume 3 is currently available at amazon.co.uk here and at amazon.com here.

Toothy neebors*

 

 

During the seven years I’ve lived in Colombo, capital city of Sri Lanka, I’ve never been far away from the Kirillapone Canal.  For the first six years, my partner and I occupied a flat in the street immediately to the south of it.  Since late last year, we’ve been in a flat in the street immediately to its north.  In fact, our current living-room balcony offers a decent view of its last few hundred metres before it connects with the Indian Ocean.

 

I’d assumed this waterway was installed by the canal-loving Dutch when they occupied part of Sri Lanka in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Having done some research, however, I now know it was created by the British – on the orders of one Charles Peter Layard, the very first Mayor of Colombo and the Government Agent for the Western Province of what was then Ceylon.  The canal’s main function was not a transportation or economic one.  It was meant to act as a flood-control mechanism for the surrounding area.  Later, it transpired that the level of the canal’s bed was higher than that of its catchment area, so that excess water wouldn’t necessarily drain into it.  This miscalculation earned it the nickname ‘Layard’s Folly’.

 

The canal – or at least our stretch of it – is less malodorous than the Dehiwala Canal a mile or two further south, but it still looks polluted and I see a fair amount of gunk floating along it.  The city sends guys in boats along it now and then to pull out the trash, but it’s a never-ending battle.  Still, despite its less-than-pristine condition, it seems to act as a wildlife corridor.  Birds are able to follow it through the city, to and from the sea, without the risk of flying smack into any buildings.  The more exotic feathered wildlife I’ve seen in its vicinity over the years include pelicans and, on one surreal occasion, a colourful male peacock that managed somehow to flap up and land on a balcony of our apartment.

 

Though Colombo often encroaches right to the canal’s edges, there are patches of greenery along it and this seemingly serves as a corridor for land animals too.  I’ve been surprised by some of the furry or scaly creatures I’ve seen, living as deeply in the city as we do, and I assume they got here by following the canal.  We’ve had monkeys show up on our balconies a couple of times and, on one memorable night, a mongoose did too.  Several years back, we saw a sizeable monitor lizard plodding along one of our neighbourhood’s streets in a stately fashion.

 

A few weeks ago, one morning, I was standing on the living-room balcony when something in the water below caught my eye.  There’d been heavy rain the night before and plenty of debris had been flushed seawards along the canal.  This apparent piece of debris looked the biggest yet.  First of all, I assumed I was looking at a log.  However, its shape seemed to curve around and at one end it tapered to a point…  Could it be a…?  Surely not.  I grabbed my camera, zoomed in on the thing, took some photographs and transferred them to my laptop.  On the laptop-screen, I realised I had indeed been looking at a crocodile.

 

 

I know crocodiles are found in the wilder parts of the island and, when the Portuguese arrived here in the 16th century, Beira Lake – now a prominent feature of cosmopolitan, downtown Colombo – was supposed to be hoaching with the beasts.  But I hadn’t expected one to penetrate this far into the city in 2021.  The rain of the previous night must have washed him along.

 

Let’s hope he made it back to his usual territory and didn’t stop to snack on any citizens on the way.  Although I doubt very much if anyone would be taking a swim in the insalubrious waters of the Kirillapone Canal.

 

* A play on the opening lines of the epic poem Tam O’Shanter by Robert Burns.