The tragic, magic man

 

© Coronet Books

 

Continuing with the October / Halloween theme, here is a piece I first posted at the beginning of 2020 about a collection of spooky stories by the late, great Charles Beaumont.

 

Last year, while I was back visiting my family in Scotland, I happened to be hoking around in some boxes of books that belonged to me but that’d ended up gathering dust in a corner of my father’s attic.  Inside one of those boxes I discovered a very old paperback called The Magic Man, a collection of mostly fantasy, horror and science-fiction stories by the late American writer Charles Beaumont originally published in 1965.  Dimly, I recalled buying this for 25p, though the cover-price was a pre-decimalization 3/6, in a second-hand bookshop in the Lincolnshire town of Louth.  I worked in Louth for five months in 1983 as a volunteer classroom assistant and houseparent at a residential school for boys with severe behavioral issues – ‘maladjusted’ boys, as they were called in those unsympathetic and non-PC days.

 

I knew Beaumont’s name in 1983 because I’d seen it attached to several movies that’d had a big impact on me while I was growing up, such as The Seven Faces of Dr Lao and Masque of the Red Death (1964).  But after buying the book, I never got around to opening it and it ended up stashed away and unread among the hundreds, eventually thousands of other books I owned.

 

Anyway, 37 years later – this sentence makes me feel absolutely ancient – I’ve finally read the stories in The Magic Man.  The collection kicks off with an introduction by Beaumont’s friend and mentor Ray Bradbury, which while gracious in tone suggests that Bradbury was a hard taskmaster to have as your writing tutor.  He recalls telling the young Beaumont to write and submit one story every week: “He worked, I remember, part time at United Parcel Service, back in the early fifties, so as to spend the rest of his hours finishing that special story that must be sent off in the mail every Saturday.”  Intriguingly, Bradbury also mentions that Beaumont tried, “for years, to convince movie producers to make films out of the Ian Fleming books.”  Obviously, and sadly for Beaumont’s bank balance, someone else managed to convince Cubby Broccoli and Albert Saltzman to make films out of them first.

 

With Bradbury as his guru, it’s no surprise that several stories in The Magic Man bear the imprint of Bradbury’s own fanciful, atmospheric and wistfully nostalgic writing.  The title story, about a stage magician who travels a circuit of small American prairie towns doing magic shows and who doesn’t appreciate the importance that his ‘magic’ holds for the prairie townspeople while they go about their otherwise humdrum existences, has echoes of Bradbury’s 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes.  It also evokes Charles G. Finney’s novel The Circus of Dr Lao, which coincidentally Beaumont adapted for producer George Pal as the movie The Seven Faces of Dr Lao.  Also with a flavour of Bradbury-esque small-town America is The Hunger, although Beaumont’s tale of a lonely, frustrated spinster who feels a strange affinity for an escaped, murderous lunatic pushes the envelope further than the genteel Bradbury would have done.

 

Bradbury’s introduction notes too that Beaumont had a penchant for driving and “burning up the dirt on the nearest racetrack” and a couple of the stories reflect his love for automobiles.  A Classic Affair, about a worried woman asking a friend to follow her husband, whom she believes is in an adulterous relationship, takes a nice twist when the man discovers just what, as opposed to who, the husband is having an affair with, although the twist that follows on from that twist isn’t perhaps so surprising.  Meanwhile, the final story, A Death in the Country, convincingly details the desperate life of an aging and failing dirt-track car racer and is one of the collection’s few non-genre stories.

 

If Perchance to Dream, the story of a man with a heart condition who’s troubled by a recurrent dream where he’s lured onto a literally heart-stopping rollercoaster, sounds familiar, it’s because Beaumont adapted it into an episode of the classic TV show The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  This was one of 22 episodes of that series that he scripted or co-scripted.  (Beaumont clearly had conflicted feelings about writing for cinema and television.  According to the cult New Wave sci-fi / fantasy author Harlan Ellison, Beaumont once told him that: “Attaining success in Hollywood is like climbing a gigantic mountain of cow flop, in order to pick one perfect rose from the summit.  And you find when you’ve made that hideous climb… you’ve lost the sense of smell.”)

 

Another story that ended up as the basis for a TV episode is The New People, which became an instalment in the British anthology series Journey to the Unknown (1968-69), made by horror specialists Hammer Films in conjunction with 20th Century Fox.  Beaumont’s story features an enclave of successful professionals and their families living in a well-to-do American neighbourhood who, like the characters in Richard Yates’ novel Revolution Road (1961), are beneath the surface bored out of their wits with their situation.   But while Yates’ characters try to solve the problem of their ennui by contemplating a move to Paris, Beaumont’s characters decide to enliven things by participating in some dark activities indeed.  In the Journey to the Unknown episode, this sinister community is moved to the affluent Home Counties of England.  With a first-rate cast including Robert Reed, Adrienne Corri, Melissa Stribling, Milo O’Shea and a splendidly saturnine Patrick Allen, it’s fairly effective.  But the episode leaves out an important plot element involving the main characters’ sex lives (or lack of them) that gives the original story a satisfying and, with hindsight, logical twist ending.

 

The Magic Man has a couple of weaker entries, which tend to be science fictional.  The Last Caper suffers because it attempts to graft a Raymond Chandler / Philip Marlowe-type private-detective story onto a space-age setting, with characters speaking a futuristic version of Chandler’s famously hardboiled 1940s patois.  (“Don’t push it, rocket-jockey…”).  This sounds awfully dated now.  Similarly, The Monster Show has its characters speaking like futuristic beatniks and doesn’t fare any better.  (“It’s pictures that count.  Flap?”  “Nothing can go wrong.  Nothing-o.”)  It makes me wonder how dated the hip and cutting-edge, for the time, ‘cyberpunk’ sci-fi novels of the 1980s and 1990s will seem in a few decades’ time, if they don’t seem dated already.

 

That said, The Crooked Man, set in a future where homosexuality is the norm and heterosexuals are a persecuted minority, is a fine example of a science-fiction story that highlights a contemporary injustice by pitching its readers into a world where the tables have been turned.  It was pretty bold of Playboy magazine to publish the story when it did, back in 1955.

 

A little too varied in quality, and with some stories that show their influences a little too much – the 1955 story The Murderers, though enjoyable, pinches the premise of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) and the 1929 play by John Hamilton on which it was based – The Magic Man isn’t wholly satisfying.  But it contains a lot of interesting and entertaining fiction and makes one wonder what spectacular things Beaumont might have gone on to write if he hadn’t died at the wastefully young age of 38.  Yes, Charles Beaumont was born, grew up, established himself as a writer and died in almost the same period of time that elapsed between my buying The Magic Man and my reading it.

 

The nature of his passing wasn’t pleasant.  He succumbed to a mystery illness, which his agent Forest J. Ackerman theorized was a combination of Alzheimer’s and Pick’s disease, whereby he suffered from headaches, reduced concentration, slurred speech, erratic behavior, weight loss and premature aging.  At the time of his death, one of Beaumont’s sons recalled, he “looked 95 and was, in fact, 95 by every calendar except the one on your watch.”

 

So, while the main character of the title story here styles himself as the Magic Man, I can’t help but think of the story’s author as the Tragic Man.

 

From twilightzone.fandom.com/wiki

No country for young men

 

From unsplash.com / © Piret Ilver

 

Reading last week’s news reports from the United Kingdom, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  The media minister John Whittingdale reached levels of daftness I thought were beyond even Boris Johnson’s Conservative government when he declared at the Royal Television Society Convention that the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 should make television programmes that ‘showcase British culture’ and ‘reflect Britain and British values’.  However, subsequent plans set out by the spectacularly useless Brexit minister Lord Frost that would allow shops, supermarkets and market stalls to sell their wares using old imperial measurements went rocketing into even higher parts of the stratosphere of stupidity.

 

I’ll talk about the measurements first.  The Conservatives are well aware that the bulk of their support lies among people who are older, more set in their ways, more likely to have acquired property and savings and more susceptible to fearmongering baloney from the Daily Mail and Daily Express about socialists wanting to redistribute their wealth.  So, I suppose Conservative Party apparatchiks believe they’re appealing to this constituency and its sense of nostalgia by bringing back the good, old-fashioned ounces, pounds, quarts, pints, inches, feet, etc., that were the units of measurement in their youth.  But hold on.  I’m now closer to sixty than I am to fifty and even I can’t remember a time when I measured things and made calculations using the imperial system.

 

When I was a kid at primary school in the early 1970s, it was the metric system I learned about – millimetres and centimetres, metres and kilometres, millilitres and litres, grammes and kilogrammes.  And it was really easy.  Everything was organised in tens, hundreds and thousands.  Even if you had neutron-star levels of denseness when it came to maths, you knew that to multiply something by tens, hundreds or thousands you just added one, two or three noughts to the number in question.

 

My parents, I have to admit, struggled to get their heads round the metric system.  This astonished me.  Just a couple of years earlier, they’d happily been performing mental gymnastics every time they went into a shop and used the UK’s pre-decimalisation currency system that had – yikes – one pound consisting of 240 pennies.  Also, I remember watching an early episode of the saucy department-store sitcom Are You Being Served? (1972-85) wherein battle-axe sales assistant Mrs Slocombe was so confused by centimetres that she called them ‘centipedes’.  Wow, I thought.  Mrs Slocombe must be really thick.

 

From nowthatsnifty.blogspot.com / © BBC

 

And what do I know of the imperial system today?  Well, words like ‘miles’, ‘stones’ and of course ‘pints’ are ingrained on my vocabulary because they never disappeared from British road-signs, weighing scales or pub-menus.  But like most people my age and younger, I suspect, how these units fit together is a mystery to me.  I know there are twelves inches in a foot, because inches and feet were marked along the bottom side of my school ruler, which had 30 centimetres marked along the top side that I measured things and drew straight lines with.  And I know there are 14 pounds in a stone… or is it 16?

 

But the rest is just baffling.  The relationship between feet, yards, chains, furlongs and miles?  I haven’t a scooby.  (Okay, having just checked the Internet, I can report there are three feet in a yard, 22 yards in a chain, ten chains in a furlong and eight furlongs in a mile.)  Between stones, hundredweights and tons?  No bloody idea.  (Again, having checked: 14 pounds make a stone, 112 pounds make a hundredweight and 2240 pounds make a ton.)  Gills, pints, quarts and gallons?  I’m totally clueless.  (In fact: four gills make a pint, two pints a quart and four quarts a gallon.)

 

So, anyway.  The British government is about to give retail businesses the go-ahead to inflict upon their customers an archaic system of measurements that the majority of Britons under the age of 60 don’t understand and, even if they did, would find migraine-inducingly difficult to calculate in…  All part of the impeccable logic of 2021 Brexit Britain.

 

From unsplash.com / © Edson Rosas

 

I suppose John Whittingdale’s proposals about British TV programmes having to contain a quota of ‘Britishness’ make slightly more sense because fewer young people nowadays watch ‘linear’ TV – i.e., programmes that are broadcast on a particular channel according to a pre-determined schedule.  The traditional, old-fashioned sort of telly that the politicians are obviously thinking about here is watched by an older and more conservative demographic, so having programmes with a more patriotic slant would probably go down well with many of the viewers.  But that’s not to say that the concept isn’t idiotic.

 

The examples Whittingdale cited of TV shows that reflect ‘Britain and British values’ include The Great British Bake-Off (2010-present) – well, I suppose the clue is in the name; the Carry On films, which, oddly enough, aren’t actual TV shows at all, but films; Only Fools and Horses, a sitcom that started in 1981 and ended its run as a series in 1991, three decades ago; and, surprise, museum-piece drama Downton Abbey (2010-11), created by Julian Fellowes, now incidentally a Conservative peer in the House of Lords, and which the late A.A. Gill once memorably described in the Sunday Times as “everything I despise and despair of on British television: National Trust sentimentality, costumed comfort drama that flogs an embarrassing, demeaning, and bogus vision of the place I live in.”

 

The idea of promoting ‘Britishness’ and ‘British values’ in TV programmes shatters into tiny, ridiculous pieces the moment you think about it.  Being British is something that applies (whether they like it or not) to Diane Abbot, Monica Ali, Alan Bennett, Anjem Choudary, Jeremy Clarkson, Nick Cohen, Arlene Foster, Armando Iannucci, Ken Loach, Val McDermid, Sir Steve McQueen, Meera Syal, Peter Tatchell, Gok Wan and Leanne Wood.  It applies to the current darling of the British media, the British-Romanian-Chinese-Canadian tennis player Emma Raducanu and, God help us, to Jacob Rees Mogg.  Good luck with finding common values among that lot.  Not that these disparities matter to Whittingdale and his government colleagues, who seem to believe being British means either being a toff with oodles of money, servants and a cut-glass accent – as represented by Downton Abbey – or being a working-class Cockney who likes a bit of a ‘laff’ (see Only Fools and Horses) and a bit of good-natured smut (see Carry On Up the Double Entendre or whatever).

 

From Gold / © BBC

 

Still, something in Whittingdale’s reptile brain made him realise there were people in the UK who didn’t fall into these two categories.  Presumably, this was why he cited the Northern Irish comedy Derry Girls (2018-2019) as another example of Great British programming.  If it was an example of that, though, shouldn’t it be called Londonderry Girls?

 

I suppose the thinking is, with the idiotic and Tory-approved decision to leave the European Union subjecting Britain to food shortages, jacking up its energy prices and wrecking its farming, retailing and other industries, the government needs a distraction.  Especially, it needs to distract the elderly folk most likely to vote for them.  Thus, they promote garbage like this in the hope it’ll kindle a rosy, agreeable glow of nostalgia in such folk.  And, with a bit of luck, it’ll enflame them too, making them believe the government is waging a culture war on their behalf against horrible, woke Marxists and anarchists who want to destroy the British way of life by using centimetres and kilogrammes and dismissing Downton Abbey as a pile of cobwebbed shite.

 

Incidentally, in the same vein, here are the moves I expect Boris Johnson’s ministers to announce next:

 

  • Banning all computer games whilst bringing back the patriotic British World War II comics of the 1970s. Instead of rotting their brains playing Assassin’s Creed Valhalla or Batman: Arkham City, British kids will develop some proper red, white and blue grit by reading about the adventures of D-Day Dawson in Battle and Union Jack Jackson in Victor, once a week, on cheap crinkly paper whose ink comes off on their hands.

 

 

  • Bringing in new laws to enforce the wearing of patriotic, and groovy, British fashions like platform shoes, bell-bottoms, plaid jackets, wide-lapel shirts, turtlenecks, cravats and long, lank greasy hair, so that everyone looks like a character in a 1970s Pete Walker horror movie.

 

  • Abolishing health and safety rules so that children can once again experience the adventure and thrill of playing around railway cuttings, disused canals, electrical sub-stations, slurry pits and tracts of dark and lonely water, like (the survivors of) their grandparents’ generation used to do.

 

From nationarchives.gov.uk

 

  • Bringing back hanging. To be honest, I’m not joking now.  With Priti Patel as Home Secretary, I can see this happening.

Some thoughts on Columbo – from Colombo

 

© Universal Television

 

When I was a kid during the 1970s, British television was awash with imported American detective and police series.  My schoolmates and I agreed that the genre had a ‘big five’ – maybe because the title characters of these five shows had gimmicks that impressed them deeply on our young consciousnesses.

 

There was Kojak (1973-78), whose detective hero was unashamedly bald, which meant anyone coming to school with a new haircut would be nicknamed ‘Kojak’ for days afterwards; Ironside (1967-75), whose hero was confined to a wheelchair; Cannon (1971-76), whose hero was fat – cue more cruel nicknames at school for kids slightly on the stout side; McCloud (1970-77), whose hero was a cowboy; and Columbo (1971-78), whose hero, essayed by Peter Falk, sported a grubby raincoat, unkempt head of hair and smelly-looking cigar and generally looked a bit manky.  Such was Columbo’s level of scruffiness that, whilst carrying out investigations in a soup kitchen in the 1974 episode Negative Reaction, a nun working there (Joyce Van Patten) mistook him for one of its homeless patrons.

 

In the half-century since, I’ve seen episodes of those shows repeated on TV, often on obscure satellite channels, and I have to say most of them have fallen victim to what is known in contemporary slang as the ‘suck fairy’.  This is neatly defined on fanlore.org as a “mythical creature who comes to old favourite books, art, TV shows or other media that one has not revisited in years, takes away everything in them that one loved, and refills them instead with suck.”

 

The shows seem formulaic, unmemorable, even dreary now, indistinguishable from a million other pieces of conveyor-belt-produced 1970s American TV.  Was this really the stuff that inspired us as ten-year-old kids to strut around the playground speaking in wavery drawls, like Dennis Weaver’s Deputy Marshall Sam McCloud, applying his cowboy law-enforcement techniques to the bad guys of New York (where he was on seemingly never-ending loan to the NYPD from the police department of Taos, New Mexico)?  Or inspired us to puff out our bellies and lurch / amble across the playground in imitation of William Conrad’s Private Detective Frank Cannon chasing the villains?  (Cannon, despite his obvious lack of athleticism, was able to not only run after those villains but also, somehow, catch them.)

 

However, there are two exceptions to the suck fairy rule.  One is the earlier episodes of Kojak, which capture something of 1970s New York’s sleazier side.  The other is Columbo, which although the episodes vary in quality, is frequently brilliant.  Today is September 15th, 2021, exactly 50 years to the day since Columbo debuted on American TV – not as a show with a weekly slot, but as ‘rotating episodes’ in the NDB Mystery Movie series, where it alternated with McCloud and McMillan & Wife (1971-77).  Incidentally, surely even Quentin Tarantino has difficulty remembering McMillan & Wife these days.

 

To mark the occasion, and because I’m currently living in the capital city of Sri Lanka, here are some thoughts on Columbo – from Colombo.

 

© Universal Television

 

Actually, there’s little I can say about Columbo that hasn’t already been said in this feature by Shaun Curran, which recently appeared in the BBC website’s ‘Culture’ section.  I’d take issue with one of the feature’s comments, though, that the ‘concept of class warfare wasn’t central to the creators’ thinking’.

 

Well, class warfare may not have been on the radar of William Link and Richard Levinson, the writing-producing duo who invented the character.  But I’m pretty damn sure it was at the forefront of most viewers’ minds while, episode after episode, they watched Columbo, the most humbly blue-collar of detectives, use his softly-spoken but bloody-minded persistence to wear down a succession of rich, arrogant, entitled sophisticates who, convinced of their own brilliance, believe they’ve just committed the perfect murder.  I’m certain those viewers cheered when, at the end of each episode, Columbo comprehensively outsmarted those bigshots and nabbed them for their misdeeds.

 

The show’s atypical structure saw each episode begin with some stinkingly rich, stinkingly amoral character – an art dealer, a bestselling novelist, a company CEO – commit a murder in some ingenious fashion.  Immediately, we’d be plonked into that person’s affluent world: mansions, penthouses, country retreats, exclusive clubs, golf courses, fancy cars, swimming pools, yes-men, servants, hangers-on.  Columbo wouldn’t appear until after 20 minutes or so, when the police are called.  You can imagine the murderer’s mental cry of delight when they realise that this bumbling, zero-class klutz is handling the investigation.

 

Ah, but the viewers know better.  Columbo is on the case and the disgustingly wealthy git is going to suffer.

 

His apparent obsequiousness (“The wife thinks you’re terrific!”) gives way to a gradual but relentless process of psychological torture as some teensy-weensy inconsistency (“Just one more thing… One thing that’s bothering me…”) arouses the wily detective’s suspicions and he starts tightening the screws on his quarry.  No wonder that when the climax of each episode arrives and Columbo reveals all – usually by setting some final trap in which the culprit irrefutably incriminates him or herself – arrest is usually accepted with a minimum of fuss.  The bigshot murderer has been thoroughly ground down by this disheveled, raincoated dispenser of justice.  Prison will seem a blessed relief after what they’ve just been through.

 

Colombo, with his rubbish clothes, hair and car (an elderly Peugeot 403), his clumsiness, his dozy dog and his bossy wife who, despite never making an appearance, lurks as a formidable presence in the background, might be an everyman figure.  But he also helps rectify the injustices in the American Dream that allow such unprincipled scum to rise to the top while the decent folk get stuck at the bottom.  As Joyce Van Patten’s nun remarks in Negative Reaction, “A man’s worth is not judged by the size of his purse.”  Really, each episode of Colombo ought to be watched with L’Internationale playing softly in the background.

 

© Universal Television

 

So, which are my favourite Columbo episodes?  Well, there’s 1973’s A Stitch in Crime, which is fascinating because Columbo is pitted against Mr. Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, who plays an ambitious heart surgeon using his medical know-how to bump off a colleague so he can take control of a research project.  Ironically, this episode has less logic and more emotion on display than usual.  We get a rare glimpse of Columbo losing his cool.  When Nimoy laughs at him condescendingly, he smashes a water pitcher onto the former Vulcan’s desk and spits: “I believe you killed Sharon Martin… and I believe you’re trying to kill Dr Heideman!”

 

Then there’s Double Shock, also from 1973, in which smug – okay, all Columbo villains are smug – identical twins, played by Martin Landau, conspire to kill their wealthy uncle by electrocuting him while he’s having a bath.  What makes this episode a joy is the horror shown by the victim’s prim, cleanliness-obsessed housekeeper (played by Jeanette Nolan) while Columbo trudges about her pristine household with his dirty shoes and crumbling cigar.  You get the impression she’d rather have her employer’s murder go unsolved than have this apparent oaf tramp over her expensive carpets.  “You belong in some pigsty!” she shouts at him, patience finally snapping.

 

The shiny-pated, bug-eyed Donald Pleasence was everywhere in 1970s films and television, so it was inevitable that he’d turn up in Columbo.  In the episode Any Old Port in a Storm, yet another one from 1973, he plays a fanatical wine connoisseur who at one point rages at a waiter: “This wine has been oxidized by overheating…!  An exciting meal has been spoiled by the presence of this liquid filth!”  However, unusually, Pleasence’s character is sympathetic overall.  Indeed, he only murders his dastardly half-brother when that half-brother threatens his beloved winery.  And, unlike most of Columbo’s adversaries, he’s sporting in defeat.  When he realises the game is up, he even shares a final glass of wine with the detective.

 

1974’s Swan Song has Colombo investigating a plane crash that’s resulted in the deaths of two women. One is the wife and the other is the backing singer of country-and-western star Tommy Brown, who was piloting the plane and miraculously got thrown clear during the impact and suffered only minor injuries.  But the truth is less miraculous.  Brown had got himself into a compromising situation with the background singer when she was way too young for such things, and his wife (played by the marvellous Ida Lupino) was blackmailing him into donating large sums to a religious project she championed.  To rid himself of these two sources of torment, he drugged them when they were on the plane, bailed out with a parachute, and turned up at the crash scene to make it look like he was on board when it went down, but survived.  I find this episode’s script far-fetched, but as Brown is played by Johnny Cash, and it’s basically Columbo versus the Man in Black, it makes my pick of favourites.

 

© Universal Television

 

However, my all-time favourite Columbo episode is Troubled Waters, a 1975 episode that has Columbo and the missus taking a break on a 1970s cruise ship, an experience that I have to say looks like hell on earth.  Columbo is asked to help after rich slimeball passenger Robert Vaughn murders the ship’s lounge singer and tries to pin the blame on a pianist (played by Dean Stockwell).  What makes this episode a pleasure is not only that Columbo is up against Vaughn, The Man from UNCLE (1964-68), but also that he’s allied with John Steed from The Avengers (1961-69), for playing the perplexed ship’s captain is none other than the splendid Patrick Macnee.  While Columbo drives Macnee and his crew to distraction by insisting on calling their beloved ship a ‘boat’, we get tantalising suggestions that we’re going to see Mrs. Columbo at last – though inevitably, Columbo, and the viewers, keep ‘just missing’ her.  (When the purser informs Columbo that the captain would like to see him, he asks worriedly, “It’s not about my wife, is it?  I mean… she likes to have a good time, sometimes she gets carried away…”)

 

Columbo was revived in 1989 and carried on with another two dozen episodes and specials until 2003, eight years before Peter Falk’s death.  These later Columbo-es weren’t as good as the ones from the 1970s, although it was always a pleasure to see the character on screen, still socking it to the high and mighty.

 

With Falk gone, there’s been talk of remaking the show, the most promising talk proposing Mark Ruffalo as the actor who’d take over the raincoat.  Now, while Columbo obviously wouldn’t be the same without Falk, I’d still welcome a modern-day version of the show that has the rumpled detective shuffling into luxury 2021 penthouses with his shabby raincoat and malodorous cigar, first inviting derision from, then causing irritation to, and finally striking terror into the likes of the Trumps, the Kardashians, the Kochs, the Murdochs, the Musks and so on.  I’d welcome the sight of him annoying villainous investment bankers, hedge fund managers, real estate tycoons, arms dealers, celebrity reality-TV stars and pampered YouTube influencers into submission, before collaring them and sticking them behind bars.

 

Yes, today, when a quarter of the world’s wealth now resides in the pockets of some 175,000 billionaires and multi-millionaires, and much of it didn’t get into those pockets through honest means, we need Detective Lieutenant Columbo more than ever.

 

© Universal Television

Dragged through a hedge backwards

 

© BBC

 

I’m currently halfway through William Boyd’s 2009 London-set thriller Ordinary Thunderstorms which, after a rather unengaging start, I’m happy to say is now shaping up to be a gripping read.  It’s interesting how quickly Boyd’s plot, of an innocent man being accused of a murder he didn’t commit and having to go to ground – literally so, hiding in a neglected patch of waste ground by the Embankment – to avoid both the police and the real killers, reminded me of several other books, namely, John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915), Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male (1939) and, in a rather more skewed way, J.G. Ballard’s Concrete Island (1974).

 

It’s been a good while since I read The 39 Steps and Concrete Island, but I read Rogue Male just a couple of years ago and was impressed enough to post something about it on this blog.  Here’s the entry again, slightly updated to incorporate some Benedict Cumberbatch-related news.

 

For a novel whose plot hinges around an attempt to kill Adolf Hitler, there’s remarkably little about Hitler in Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male.  In fact, the genocidal German dictator isn’t mentioned once.  Presumably this is because although Rogue Male first appeared in print in late 1939, after war had broken out between Britain and Germany, it was written before the outbreak of war when Household felt it would be diplomatic not to name names.

 

Thus, the book’s hero goes boar-hunting in Poland, crosses the border into a neighbouring country that isn’t identified, and one day ends up with the brutish leader of that country, also not identified, in the sights of his hunting rifle.  Is he actually in Germany and on the point of bagging Hitler?  Or could he be somewhere else, Russia say, where he’s targeting Joseph Stalin?  But although Household keeps it ambiguous, given historical events soon after the story’s late-1930s setting, it’s impossible to read Rogue Male now and not visualise in those sights a bloke with a square-shaped scrap of a moustache, an oily side-parting and a swastika armband.

 

Incidentally, when Rogue Male was brought to the screen, the filmmakers didn’t follow Household’s ambiguity.  A 1941 Hollywood adaptation called Manhunt, directed by Fritz Lang – who’d bailed out of Germany in 1933 after Joseph Goebbels started taking an interest in him – readily depicted the target as Hitler and, viewed today, the film feels like an unabashed wartime propaganda piece.  Meanwhile, a 1976 adaptation by the BBC, directed by Clive Donner, was also unequivocal that its hero was going after Hitler.  The actor playing Hitler was none other than Michael Sheard, fondly remembered by kids of my generation for playing Mr Bronson, the hard-nut deputy headmaster on the BBC’s children’s drama / soap opera Grange Hill (1978-2008).

 

Just as the book’s target is anonymous, so is its hero, even though he tells the story in the first person.  Again, the film versions differ from the book in giving him an identity.  In 1941’s Manhunt, he’s called Captain Thorndyke and is played by Walter Pidgeon.  In 1976’s Rogue Male, he’s called Sir Robert Hunter and is played by the marvellous Peter O’Toole.

 

© Penguin Books

 

Whoever he is, he’s apprehended before he can fire the rifle and subjected to a brutal interrogation.  Then his captors decide that the easiest way to deal with him is to bump him off and make his death look like an unfortunate hunting accident.  The ensuing story can be divided into two parts, with each part having a similar, contracting, funnelling structure where the action begins in an expansive setting but ends in a cramped, claustrophobic one.  First, Rogue Male’s hero manages to escape from his captors and is pursued by them across the countryside of whatever foreign nation he’s in.  Okay, for the sake of simplicity, let’s just say his captors are the Gestapo and the nation is Germany.  His pursuers close in but he manages to elude them by stowing away on a London-bound ship, hiding on board inside an empty water tank.

 

Then begins the second, longer part of the narrative.  Back in Blighty, he discovers that Hitler’s agents are still on his trail.  They don’t just want to eliminate him but also want to make him sign a document saying that he carried out his attempted assassination with the blessing of the British government.  Again, the pursuit begins against a broad vista, this time the streets of London and landscapes of southern England.  But again, his options narrow and eventually he digs and hides himself in a little cubbyhole under an unruly and remote hedgerow marking the boundary between two farms in Dorset.

 

One thing that surely inspired Rogue Male was Richard Connell’s short story The Hounds of Zaroff (1924) about a big-game hunter who gets hunted as game by another, even bigger-game hunter.   However, while Household borrows this ironic scenario of a hunter becoming the hunted, he explores it with surprising depth.  His hero obviously grew up in a rural aristocratic culture of shooting and hunting but he’s remarkably empathetic with the creatures on the receiving end of the bullets and hounds.  He mentions once or twice that he got sick of hunting rabbits because of their harmlessness and defencelessness.  And, holed up in his Dorset burrow, he becomes rabbit-like himself.

 

He also bonds with a cat living wild in the hedge above him, whom he names ‘Asmodeus’, presumably after the ‘worst of demons’ described in the Catholic and Orthodox Book of Tobit.  At one point he speculates of Asmodeus, “there is, I believe, some slight thought transference between us…  back and forth between us go thoughts of fear and disconnected dreams of action.  I should call these dreams madness, did I not know they came from him and that his mind is, by our human standards, mad.”

 

Later, he comments, “I had begun to think as an animal; I was afraid but a little proud of it.  Instinct, saving instinct, had preserved me time and again…  Gone was my disgust with my burrow; gone my determination to take to open country whatever the difficulties of food and shelter.  I didn’t think, didn’t reason.  I was no longer the man who had challenged and nearly beaten all the cunning and loyalty of a first-class power.  Living as a beast, I had become a beast, unable to question emotional stress, unable to distinguish danger in general from a particular source of danger.”

 

While Rogue Male’s central character becomes unhealthily animal-like, his main adversary is a hunter extraordinaire.  A German agent masquerading as an English country gent called Major Quive-Smith appears on the scene, displaying impeccable upper-class charm towards the civilians he encounters, whist ruthlessly pursuing his quarry.  Quive-Smith books a room in one of the farms adjacent to the hedge and burrow, pretending that he wants to spend a few weeks in the area doing some shooting.  Spying on him from afar, Household’s narrator notes uneasily that “the major carried one of those awkward German weapons with a rifled barrel below the two gun barrels… the three barrels were admirably adapted to his purpose of ostensibly shooting rabbits while actually expecting bigger game.”

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

In addition to The Hounds of Zaroff, Household was probably influenced by John Buchan’s The 39 Steps (1915).  But while there’s more to Buchan’s novel than its conventional action-adventure reputation would suggest, due to its recurrent theme of disguise and imposture, I think Rogue Male is superior in terms of characterisation and psychological tension.  Buchan’s Richard Hannay is an outsider in that he’s a veteran of the African colonies who finds life back in the ‘Old Country’ stuffy, pretentious and tedious; but the hero of Rogue Male is an outsider in more complex ways.  He comes from a world of wealth and entitlement but treats that world with indifference and it’s noticeable that when he’s back in London he has a lack of friends in high places to call upon for help.  Indeed, he’s such a loner that at times you wonder if he wants to resign from the human race itself.  This is even without the mental and physical stress of being hunted making him less like a man and more like an animal.  Household provides a few clues about a past tragedy that may explain his disenchantment but wisely he doesn’t get bogged down in too much backstory.

 

And though Hannay is no shrinking violet, it’s doubtful if he could put with living for long in the burrow that the narrator digs for himself in Dorset and where he spends a good part of 90 pages, first hiding in it from Quive-Smith and his men, and then besieged in it by them.  Household manages the tricky task of not overly describing the dirt, muck and claustrophobic darkness of this hideaway whilst implying its squalor.  His hero is accustomed to it while he’s inside it but realises how horrible it is when he’s out of it and then comes back: “The stench was appalling.  I had been out only half an hour, but that was enough for me to notice, as if it had been created by another person, the atmosphere in which I had been living.”  Then again, like many men of his generation, he’s already undergone something traumatic that puts this experience in perspective: “…my God, I remembered that there were men at Ypres in 1915 whose dugouts were smaller and damper than mine!”

 

I’ve known the story of Rogue Male for a long time thanks to seeing the two film adaptations.  I didn’t like the 1941 Hollywood version, which downplays the rawness of the novel and turns it into a conventional espionage thriller, reducing the amount of time Walter Pidgeon spends in the burrow and padding things out with extra characters and plot twists.  The film’s low-point comes when Pidgeon gets off the ship and is greeted by a parade of Cockney Pearly Kings and Queens waltzing and singing down a foggy street. I guess that was the filmmakers’ way of assuring American audiences that, yes, he is back in London.

 

But I enjoyed the 1976 BBC version.  Its scriptwriter, Frederick Raphael, streamlines parts of Household’s narrative and embellishes others – most notably, adding a new character, a pompous and unhelpful representative of the British government sublimely played by Alastair Sim – but it’s gritty and, for the time, brutal, even if Peter O’Toole never quite becomes the desperate, filthy, animalistic figure that his counterpart in the book becomes.  In addition, it has a great cast (John Standing, Harold Pinter, Michael Byrne and Mark McManus as well as O’Toole and Sim) and it even slips in a cheeky visual reference to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s wartime classic, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp (1943).

 

And coincidentally, it looks like Rogue Male could be back in vogue.  For the past few years, it’s been known that Benedict Cumberbatch wants to produce (and presumably star in) a new version of it.  Let’s hope the Cumberbatch version, if it appears, is closer to the sombre tone of the 1976 adaptation than the anodyne, crowd-pleasing tone of the 1941 one.  Or, better still, it makes a real effort to capture the fascinatingly introspective, misanthropic and grimy mood of the novel that inspired those versions in the first place.

 

© BBC

Richard Matheson – he was legend

 

© Orion Publishing Co

 

Something has got me thinking about Richard Matheson, the science-fiction and horror author and screenwriter who passed away in 2013 at the age of 87.

 

What thing?  Well, the news that the anti-Covid-19-vaxxers in America, determined to plumb the depths of stupidity to find new reasons for not getting vaccinated, have found the stupidest reason yet.  Speculation is rife that the vaccine could turn you in a zombie.  You know, like one did in the 2007 sci-fi / horror movie I am Legend, with Will Smith, which was based on Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name.  This has prompted one of the movie’s scriptwriters, Akiva Goldsman, to step up and announce on social media: “Oh.  My.  God.  It’s a movie.  I made that up.  It’s not real.” In fact, the source of the contagion in the movie wasn’t a vaccine but a virus, genetically reprogrammed by Dr Emma Thompson to combat cancer, going spectacularly rogue.

 

In Matheson’s novel I am Legend the monsters are vampires, not zombies.  Also, what turns people into those vampires isn’t the movie’s lab-reprogrammed virus, but a mysterious pandemic.  However, the book’s premise of the world being suddenly and nightmarishly turned upside down and a small number of uninfected humans finding themselves menaced by those who’ve been infected and turned into monsters, including their own loved ones, was one that a young George Romero appropriated for his seminal 1968 movie Night of the Living Dead.  In doing so, Romero made it the blueprint for at least 80% of the zombie movies that have lurched across cinema and TV screens ever since.

 

In the novel, the number of uninfected humans is small indeed: just one, Richard Neville, who is alone in the world during the daytime and then under siege in his fortified house at night, by the vampires that everyone else has turned into.  Gradually, Neville, researching the plague, stumbles on scientific explanations for the vampire-like symptoms of its victims, why they drink blood, why they can only be killed by stakes through the heart, and why they have an aversion to sunlight, garlic and crucifixes.  I am Legend also ends with an unnerving psychological twist.  Neville, who’s spent his days roaming the surrounding city and staking the slumbering vampires, realises that the vampires are now the normal ones and he’s become the monster of everyone’s nightmares, the deadly legend of the title.

 

It’s a pity that though I am Legend was filmed on several occasions, and though Matheson lived to a venerable age, he never got to see a satisfactory celluloid version of it.  The novel received its first film treatment in Italy, where Rome unconvincingly stood in for Los Angeles, with the cheaply and incompetently made L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra (The Last Man on Earth).  Neville was played by Vincent Price, whom Matheson admired as an actor but thought was miscast in the role.  L’Ultimo Uomo della Terra was at least fairly faithful to the book, unlike the subsequent film versions, 1970’s The Omega Man, with Charlton Heston, and the 2007 one.  In The Omega Man the vampires have become a group of demented albino mutants called, with an unsubtle reference to Charles Manson, the Family.  In the Will Smith version of I am Legend they’re even less impressive, a bunch of bald, hyperactive zombies animated by some shoddy CGI.

 

Both the later movie versions lack the courage to portray Neville as being totally alone and eventually have him encounter other, as yet uninfected survivors.  They also lack the courage to include Matheson’s game-changing ending.  Instead, they close with Heston and Smith depicted as Christ-like figures who nobly sacrifice themselves for the good of what’s left of humanity.  Neville was a more interesting character when he discovered he’d become a bogeyman.  Still, disappointing though all three film versions are, there’s at least a good graphic-novel adaptation of I am Legend available.

 

© Gold Medal Books

 

The more I reminisce about Matheson, the more I realise what a wonderful and influential writer he was.  His other big – though ‘big’ perhaps isn’t the most appropriate adjective – novel of the 1950s was The Shrinking Man (1956).  Its hero, an archetypal middle-class American male called Scott Carey, is exposed to a radioactive cloud that causes his body to shrink at the rate of a seventh of an inch every day.  Thereafter, Carey’s world turns nightmarishly upside down too, though at a more gradual rate than Richard Neville’s.  First, he experiences psychological and sexual humiliation as he finds himself increasingly dwarfed by his normal-sized wife.  Following an assault by the family cat, no longer a loveable moggie but a carnivorous monster, the now-tiny Carey loses all contact with humanity and finds himself trapped in his house’s basement where the dangers facing him become formidable indeed.  A common spider, for instance, takes on elephantine proportions.  And Carey’s shrinking doesn’t stop, let alone get reversed.  At the book’s close, he muses, “If nature existed on endless planes, so also might intelligence.”  Thereafter, he dwindles away into infinity.

 

A year after its publication, the novel was filmed as The Incredible Shrinking Man, directed by Jack Arnold and with Matheson providing the script.  Matheson was unhappy with how Arnold structured the film.  He told the story in linear fashion, whereas Matheson wanted it to begin with the shrunken Carey in the basement, reliving what had happened to him via a series of flashbacks.  However, it’s still one of the best science fiction movies of the 1950s.  It crucially retains the novel’s bleakly philosophical ending.  I can remember seeing the film on TV as a kid and being genuinely upset when the ending defied my expectations that things would finish on an upbeat note.  The Incredible Shrinking Man was, incidentally, one of the great J.G. Ballard’s top ten favourite sci-fi movies.

 

© Sphere Books

 

As well as novels, Matheson was a prolific writer of short stories, many of which were collected in four books called the Shock series.  Shock 1-4 were published in Britain in the 1970s by Sphere Books, who decorated the covers with lurid and gory images – the antithesis of the unsensational, non-violent and thoughtful works inside.  The stories I remember best include Long Distance Call, about a woman plagued by mysterious phone calls that, she discovers, emanate from a local cemetery into which the telephone wire has blown down; The Children of Noah, about a motorist who finds himself in Kafkaesque predicament when he breaks the 15-miles-per-hour speed limit of a tiny American town called Zachary; and the brilliant The Splendid Source, in which a man embarks on a quest to find out where dirty jokes really come from.

 

Long Distance Call was one of several Matheson stories that were turned into episodes of the celebrated TV anthology series The Twilight Zone (1959-64).  The best of these, adapted by Matheson himself, was of course Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.  In this, William Shatner essayed his second-most-famous role, that of a just-released psychiatric patient who’s on board a plane and, looking out of the window, sees a gremlin dismantling one of the engines on the wing.  Whenever he tries to alert the crew and fellow passengers, the beastie inconveniently disappears from view.  Particularly memorable is the moment when the traumatised Shatner dares to peek through the window again and discovers the gremlin pressing its face, which resembles that of a hare-lipped teddy bear, against the outside of the glass and staring in at him.  The episode was remade as a segment of the movie version of The Twilight Zone in 1983, with John Lithgow in the Shatner role, and ten years later it received the ultimate accolade – it was spoofed in a Treehouse of Horror edition of The Simpsons, with Bart Simpson the only passenger on the school bus able to see a gremlin sabotaging its engine.  This version was called Nightmare at 5½ Feet.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Other episodes that Matheson penned for The Twilight Zone were also influential.  A World of Difference is about a businessman who makes the mind-blowing discovery that he’s a fictional character and his life is actually a movie.  Furthermore, the movie has just had its production halted, meaning he’ll have to live in the ‘real’ world as the declining, drunken movie star who’s been playing him.  This clearly informs Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show.  Meanwhile, Little Girl Lost tells the tale of a child who, one night, falls from her bed and into another dimension, a mysterious, misty void from which she can hear her parents’ concerned voices but can’t escape.  A young Steven Spielberg no doubt saw and remembered this one, because the same idea features in 1982’s Spielberg-produced Poltergeist, though this time the little girl is sucked into the other dimension through the household TV set.  And yes, The Simpsons spoofed it too in Treehouse of Horror.

 

Steven Spielberg has much to thank Matheson for.  Matheson’s short story Duel, based on an experience he had on November 22nd, 1963 – of driving home depressed at the news of Kennedy’s assassination and being harassed by a large, tailgating truck – was filmed as a TV movie in 1971 by Spielberg and gave the young director his first big critical success.  Again, Matheson wrote the script.  Duel-the-movie has motorist Dennis Weaver and the psychopathic driver of a 1955 Peterbilt 281 truck get into a deadly game of cat and mouse around the roads and highways of rural California.   We never see the truck driver himself, just his immense, bellowing, dinosaur-like vehicle.  Duel is the archetypal man-versus-machine story and, again, has been influential.  Stephen King basically rewrote it (but upped the ante by adding lots of malevolent vehicles) with his short story Trucks, which he later filmed as Maximum Overdrive (1986).

 

The made-for-television movies that filled American TV schedules in the 1970s kept Matheson busy.  As well as Duel he scripted The Night Stalker (1972) about a reporter called Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) who investigates a series of killings in modern-day Los Angeles and discovers that the perpetrator is a vampire.  The Night Stalker was successful enough to eventually spawn a TV show called Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-75), also starring McGavin, in which Kolchak investigated other strange cases involving monsters and supernatural phenomena.  Though short-lived, the show was a major inspiration for Chris Carter, whose massively popular The X-Files (1993-2018) had a similar theme.  Carter acknowledged his debt to Kolchak by having Darren McGavin guest-star in two X-Files episodes.

 

Meanwhile, the TV anthology movie Trilogy of Terror, from 1975, was based on three of Matheson’s short stories.  The first two segments are unmemorable, but the third one, which Matheson scripted from his story Prey, is great.  It stars Karen Black as an insecure woman who tries to shore up her relationship with her boyfriend, a lecturer in social anthropology, by buying him an antique ‘Zuma fetish doll’ as a birthday present.  The doll is a hideous-looking thing and sports a many-fanged grin resembling a Venus flytrap.  Before she can give the doll to its intended recipient, it comes to violent, gibbering life and she spends the evening fighting it off in the confines of her apartment.  Black’s plight is the inverse of the shrinking man’s.  She’s normal-sized and the threat she faces is tiny, but terrifying.  This also creates the template for Joe Dante’s movie Gremlins in 1984.  In particular, the scene in Gremlins where Frances Lee McCain fights off a horde of the sneering, reptilian mini-monsters in her kitchen, employing a blender and a microwave oven as weapons, is very reminiscent of Trilogy of Terror.

 

When he wasn’t writing novels, short stories and television scripts, the ever-industrious Matheson was writing for the cinema.  In the early 1960s, he scripted several of the movies based on works by Edgar Allen Poe that were made by American International Pictures and directed by Roger Corman: The House of Usher (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962) and The Raven (1963).  All told, Matheson did a good job of preserving the original stories’ gloomy, clammy spirit, whilst meeting the commercial demands of a studio and a director who were already famous for their exploitation movies, and keeping engaged a star – Vincent Price – whose performances tended to slip into the knowingly hammy when his material bored him.  The movies aren’t the most faithful adaptations of Poe, but they’re surely the most fondly remembered ones.

 

© Academy Pictures Productions / 20th Century Fox

 

Matheson also worked on British movies.  For AIP’s trans-Atlantic rival, Hammer Films, he scripted The Devil Rides Out in 1968 and managed to turn Dennis Wheatley’s bloated, reactionary novel about upstanding Anglo-Saxon aristocrats fighting a bunch of ghastly Satan-worshipping foreigners into something rather good.  And in 1973, he adapted his haunted-house novel Hell House for the screen.  The result was The Legend of Hell House, directed by John Hough and starring Roddy McDowall, Clive Revill, Pamela Franklin and Gayle Hunicutt as psychic investigators trying to get to the bottom of terrifying supernatural manifestations in the titular mansion.  The movie’s ending, which has the surviving investigators finding a hidden sanctum where the psychic forces are emanating from an embalmed body, played by a very un-embalmed-looking Michael Gough, is pretty stupid, which Matheson himself admitted.  Still, John Hough directs the film’s scary set-pieces with vigour and there’s an unsettling electronic score by Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson.

 

Matheson was a modest soul and in interviews he usually seemed puzzled that so many people could be so inspired by his work.  He might have ended up a very rich man if, like his famously litigious contemporary Harlan Ellison, he’d bothered to sue every filmmaker and writer who’d ripped off his ideas.  Mind you, he’d probably have spent all his time in court, so I’m glad he just turned the other cheek and devoted that time instead to writing his marvellous stories.

 

© Cayuga Productions / CBS Productions

Cinematic heroes 3: David Warner

 

© Warner Bros.

 

I’ve just discovered that a few days ago was the 80th birthday of the film and TV character actor David Warner.  In honour of the great man becoming an octogenarian, here’s an updated version of a post I wrote about him eight years ago.

 

For most actors, becoming typecast is a pain in the neck.  The day that the lugubrious-faced, distinctive-voiced David Warner became typecast, as an actor specialising in offbeat roles in offbeat films, often horror, science fiction and fantasy ones, it was actually a pane in the neck.

 

As Keith Jennings, the photographer who befriends Gregory Peck’s ambassador Richard Thorne in 1976’s The Omen, he is memorably decapitated when a sheet of glass comes crashing off the back of a truck and shears his head from his shoulders.  Indeed, though The Omen was choc-a-block with people dying in gruesome freak accidents, and later there were Omen sequels with more freak accidents, and later still there were a half-dozen Final Destination movies following a similar template and serving up many more freak accidents, the cinema has seen very few freak accidents as spectacularly shocking as Warner’s in that 45-year-old movie.

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

The main actors in the big-budget Omen – Peck, Lee Remick, Billie Whitelaw – were names not normally associated with horror movies.  Until then, Warner’s name hadn’t been associated with them either.  Mancunian by birth, he started acting professionally in 1962 and the following year joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, which led to stage roles in Henry IV Part 1, Henry VI Parts I-III, Julius Caesar, Richard II, The Tempest, Twelfth Night and, in 1965, playing the title role, Hamlet.  The earliest films he appeared in were sometimes theatrical in origin too, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Sea Gull, which both appeared in 1968.  However, it was in 1966’s Morgan: A Suitable Case for Treatment that he made his biggest impression on 1960s movie audiences.  In it he plays a working-class artist who’s abandoned by his posh wife, played by Vanessa Redgrave, and goes to unhinged extremes to win her back.

 

When Warner’s career is discussed, it’s often overlooked that he was once a regular performer with the legendary action-movie director Sam Peckinpah.  His association with the hard-drinking, coke-snorting, near-deranged filmmaker started with 1970’s The Ballad of Cable Hogue, in which he played an eccentric preacher who befriends Jason Robards’ titular hero.  Peckinpah often boasted, “I can’t direct when I’m sober,” and for the young Warner Hogue must have been quite an initiation into the director’s weird and wonderful ways.  When bad weather held up filming, Peckinpah and his crew went on a massive drinking binge and ran up a bar-bill worth thousands and thousands of dollars.

 

In the next year’s Straw Dogs, Peckinpah’s taboo-busting film set in the English West Country, Warner plays a simpleton who unwittingly kills a girl and then takes refuge in Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house with a squad of vigilantes on his trail.  In Cross of Iron, Peckinpah’s 1977 war movie about a doomed German platoon on the Russian front, he plays a humane German officer who just wants to get through the war in one piece.  In fact, in Cross of Iron, nearly all the Germans, including James Coburn’s gallant corporal and James Mason’s world-weary colonel, are humane types who view war with extreme distaste.  What upsets the apple-cart, and eventually gets most of them killed, is the arrival of Maximillian Schell’s glory-hunting Prussian officer.  Schell is obsessed with winning an iron cross for himself and isn’t worried about other soldiers dying in the process.

 

© Anglo-EMI Productions

 

In 1973 Warner made his first appearance in a horror film, the British anthology movie From Beyond the Grave, whose stories were based on the writings of Ronald Chetwyn-Hayes.  In the film’s first story, The Gate Crasher, he plays an arrogant prick called Edward Charlton who acquires an old mirror from an antique shop and gets it on the cheap by lying to the shop-owner about the mirror’s likely age.  Charlton obviously hasn’t seen many horror films before.  Otherwise, he might have thought twice about cheating a proprietor played by Peter Cushing in a shop called Temptations Inc.  He gets his just deserts.  The mirror turns out to be inhabited by a malevolent spirit, which possesses him and drives him to commit murder.

 

It was in the late 1970s and early 1980s that Warner got his fondest-remembered roles, starting with the kindly but ill-fated Jennings in The Omen.  Then, in 1979’s Time After Time, he switches from being a nice guy to being a bad one, playing John Leslie Stevenson, a Victorian gentleman and friend of the pioneering science-fiction writer H.G. Wells, who’s played by Malcolm McDowell.  Unbeknownst to Wells, Stevenson has been making a name for himself by butchering prostitutes in Whitechapel – for he is none other than Jack the Ripper.  When Wells unveils his latest invention, a working time machine like the one he would later write about in his famous 1895 novella, Stevenson uses it to escape the closing police net and scoots one century forward into the future.  But the machine has a recall function, so a horrified Wells summons it back to the 19th century and uses it to follow Leslie to 1979.  Wells assumes that he’s let Jack the Ripper loose on Utopia and, predictably, is more than a little disappointed to find that the 20th century is less utopian than he’d anticipated.  Meanwhile, the Ripper has taken to the era’s violence, sleaze and heavy-decibel rock music like a duck to water.

 

A quirky and very entertaining movie, Time After Time was written and directed by Nicholas Meyer who, regrettably, devoted most of his energies to the less adventurous and eccentric, and more mainstream and family-friendly Star Trek franchise during the 1980s.  Actually, it’s probably because of Meyer’s involvement that both Warner and Malcolm McDowell have made appearances in Star Trek films – Warner was in both Star Trek V and VI (1989 and 1991).  I’m not much of a fan of Star Trek or its movie spin-offs, but I like the sixth one, largely because Warner is in it.  He plays Chancellor Gorkon, charismatic leader of the Klingons and obviously modelled on the then Soviet leader Mikael Gorbachev, who’s decided it’s time for the Klingon Empire to pursue peace-talks with the Federation.

 

In 1981 Warner delivered another memorable performance in Terry Gilliam’s cinematic fairy tale The Time Bandits.  He plays Evil, who’s been created by Ralph Richardson’s Supreme Being and then imprisoned in a hellish place called the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness.  Obviously, Warner and Richardson’s characters are the Devil and God under different monikers.  Some fine actors have played Old Nick in movies over the years, including Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson, but for my money Warner’s portrayal is the most entertaining.  His Devil is a petulant and embittered type who spends his time ranting at his idiotic minions (“Shut up!  I’m speaking rhetorically!”) about how rubbish God is.  The Almighty, he argues, has wasted His time creating useless things such as slugs, and nipples for men, and 43 species of parrots, when He could have concentrated on making laser beams, car phones and VCRs.  Warner steals the show in The Time Bandits, which is no minor achievement considering that in addition to Richardson the film stars Ian Holm, John Cleese, Sean Connery, Michael Palin, Shelley Duvall and a delightful gang of time-traveling dwarves led by David Rappaport.

 

Thereafter, Warner’s CV filled with all manner of odd movies, hardly Shakespearean in the acting opportunities they offered, but relished by obsessives like myself.  These include 1979’s Nightwing, 1980’s The Island, 1987’s Waxwork, 1991’s Cast a Deadly Spell, 1995’s In the Mouth of Madness, 1997’s Scream 2 and 2010’s Black Death.

 

© Walt Disney Productions

 

As an actor he’s adept at playing out-and-out villains, for example, his Dillinger / Sark character in the 1981 Disney computer-game fantasy Tron, a movie that was unappreciated at the time but that, in the decades since, has been accorded considerable retro-cool.  He’s also good at doing mad scientists, like the splendidly named Doctor Alfred Necessiter in the whacky 1982 comedy The Man with Two Brains, which is poignant today as a reminder of the time when Steve Martin used to be funny.

 

But he also has harassed and melancholic qualities, which come nicely to the fore when he’s playing fathers.  He was, for instance, the heroine’s father in 1984’s The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan’s atmospheric and sensual adaptation of Angela Carter’s gothic short stories.  Meanwhile, in Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, he plays Senator Sandar, father of dishy chimpanzee Helena Bonham-Carter.  In heavy simian make-up and in Warner’s unmistakable tones, Sandar sighs at one point: “Youth is wasted on the young…”

 

In 1997 Warner found time to appear in James Cameron’s Titanic, then the biggest-grossest movie of all time.  Say what you like about Titanic, about the mawkish love story between Kate Winslet and Leonardo Di Caprio, about Billy Zane’s cartoonish performance as the villain, about the unspeakable theme song sung by Celine Dion, but you can’t deny that it has a great supporting cast: Warner, Kathy Bates, Bernard Hill, Victor Garber, Bill Paxton.  Warner, playing Spicer Lovejoy, Zane’s valet, doesn’t have much to do apart from connive with his master, stalk around, spy on Kate Winslet and generally behave sinisterly.  He does, though, get to punch Di Caprio in the guts after he’s been handcuffed to a railing on board the sinking liner, which is actually my favourite bit in the film.  (Warner also turned up in a 1979 movie called SOS Titanic and the Titanic features in The Time Bandits too.  Thus, he’s a titanic actor in all senses of the term.)

 

Warner has long been a fixture on television as well.  He’s appeared in one-off TV movies and dramas like 1984’s Frankenstein, where he plays the creature to Robert Powell’s Victor Frankenstein and Carrie Fisher’s Elizabeth, 1993’s Body Bags and 2003’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; appeared in series and mini-series like 1981’s Masada, 1982’s Marco Polo, 1984’s Charlie, 2011’s Secret of Crickley Hall and, from 2008 to 2016, Wallander, in which he plays another father, this time to Kenneth Branagh; and lent his voice to animated shows, including the Superman, Batman and Spiderman ones during the 1990s.

 

© Greengrass Productions / ABC Distribution Company

 

Some of his TV work is as cult-y as his film work.  In 1991, he guest-starred in three episodes of David Lynch’s glorious, off-the-wall crime / horror / sci-fi / soap opera Twin Peaks, playing Thomas Eckhardt, a Hong Kong-based crime-lord who has a long and dark history with Joan Chen’s Jocelyn Packard.  Two years after that, he appeared in the underrated, Oliver Stone-produced mini-series Wild Palms, a hybrid of conspiracy thriller, Alice in Wonderland and the then-recent literary genre of cyberpunk.  Set in a near-future USA, under the heel of an organisation that’s part multinational corporation and part Scientology-style religious sect, the show features Warner as Eli, the leader of an underground resistance movement.  (This clip neatly encapsulates Wild Palms’ weird energy.)  And in 2014 he popped up in John Logan and Sam Mendes’ gothic horror mash-up Penny Dreadful, in the role of Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing.  Because Warner played Frankenstein’s creature in 1984, it’s ironic that in Penny Dreadful – in a cheeky tangling of Stoker and Mary Shelley’s original narratives – Van Helsing gets killed by the same creature, played this time by Rory Kinnear.

 

In 2005 Warner was involved with the macabre TV comedy show The League of Gentlemen, written by and starring Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith, Steve Pemberton and Jeremy Dyson.  In fact, he didn’t appear in the show itself, but in its cinematic spinoff The League of Gentlemen’s Apocalypse.  Like many a film-based-on-a-TV-show, it doesn’t really work on the big screen, though its most effective scenes are definitely those featuring Warner as a 17th century magician called Dr Erasmus Pea.  His character is rottenly evil but he’s very amusing too.  For example, while Dr Pea uses a pan to fry a hellish concoction including two recently gouged-out eyeballs, from which he plans to grow a monstrous homunculus, the camera cuts to a close-up and he pulls a pretentiously absorbed, TV-chef expression worthy of Jamie Oliver.

 

Warner clearly gets along with The League of Gentlemen’s creators, because since then he has appeared alongside Mark Gatiss in the radio comedy show Nebulous (2005-8); in The Cold War, a 2013 Gatiss-scripted episode of Doctor Who; and in The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge, a 2015 episode of Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s acclaimed anthology show Inside No. 9.

 

The 21st century has seen Warner return to the stage, giving well-received turns as the venerable and vulnerable monarch in King Lear in 2005 and as Falstaff in Henry IV Parts I and II in 2007.  His IMDb entry lists his most recent movie appearance as 2018’s Mary Poppins Returns and says he was still doing voice-work last year.  Warner is now at an age where you wouldn’t begrudge for him retiring and choosing an easier life of armchairs, cardigan, slippers and pipe, but I for one hope that some young filmmakers – perhaps ones who grew up enjoying his performances in The Omen, Time After Time, The Time Bandits and Tron when they were shown on TV – coax him into making a few more movies.  He’s the sort of actor whose mere presence in a film, no matter how good or bad, gives you a glow.

 

© Handmade Films / Janus Films

The kraken’s un-woke

 

© BBC / From the Guardian

 

Are you one of those many British people who feels ‘underserved and unheard by their media’ because your politics are a wee bit to the right?  Are you hostile towards that trendy left-wing phenomenon called ‘wokeness’ and convinced that ‘the direction of news debate in Britain is increasingly woke and out of touch with the majority of its people’?

 

Yes, life must be horrible for you in 2021 Britain.  There’s absolutely nobody in the British media to defend your views because it’s all so hideously lefty and woke.  Well, except for the Daily Express.  And the Daily Mail, of course.  But aside from those two newspapers, there’s nobody…  Oh, and the Sun.  And the Daily Telegraph.  And the Spectator.  And a good chunk of the opinion pages of the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times.  But that’s it.

 

Meanwhile, with so many volleys of lefty, woke bullets whizzing around nowadays, there aren’t any right-wing commentators at all who’re bold enough to stick their heads above the parapet.  Apart from Toby Young, bless his baldy little socks.  And that feisty Julie Burchill.  And Jeremy Clarkson, James Delingpole, Darren Grimes, Daniel Hannon, Julia Hartley-Brewer, Katie Hopkins, Quentin Letts, Rod Liddle, Richard Littlejohn, Kelvin Mackenzie, Jan Moir, Tim Montgomerie, Charles Moore, Douglas Murray, Fraser Nelson, Brendan O’Neill, Alison Pearson, Melanie Phillips, Andrew Pierce and Sarah Vine.  And that plucky actor chappie, what’s his name?  Lawrence Fox?  Anyway, there’s only a tiny handful of brave right-wing holdouts against wokeness.  You can’t even include Piers Morgan among them.  Poor Piers used to be good on Good Morning Britain, but he’s been off the telly since his crusade against Meghan Markle, Woke Evil Personified, made him so angry that his head burst in a geyser of liquified gammon.

 

Thus, there’s hardly any media outlets or media people in Britain to defend your honest, decent, patriotic, right-wing sensibilities against the predations of the horrible, lefty, woke establishment.  That’s an establishment headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson. That’s right, the shamelessly woke Boris ‘tank-topped bumboys’, ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’, ‘Muslim-women-look-like-letterboxes’ Johnson.  An establishment run by a cadre of Marxist provocateurs like Priti Patel, Matt Hancock, Michael Gove and Dominic Raab, who’re forever up to no-good, lefty, woke activities such as imprisoning asylum seekers in pestilent hellholes, protecting statues of mass-murdering slave traders, wallpapering the rooms where they do Zoom calls with Union Jacks, and doing anything up to and including eating live cockroaches and hammering rusty nails into their eyeballs to prove their loyalty to Her Majesty the Queen.

 

Luckily, salvation is now at hand.  Today sees the launch of a new TV channel called GB News, which promises to push a right-wing agenda that all sensible, salt-of-the-earth Britons will agree with and promises to call out this woke nonsense that possesses our lefty British media and government.  Needless to say, just by existing, GB News has gone against the grain of the British establishment, and its creation is thanks to the efforts of several, heroic, anti-establishment figures.  These include financial backers like the anti-establishment American TV company Discovery; and the anti-establishment investment fund Legatum, which is based in that hotbed of punk rock, Dubai; and the anti-establishment hedge-fund boss Sir Paul Marshall, whose son Winston plays the banjo in Mumford & Sons, a band so hardcore anti-establishment it makes Rage Against the Machine look like wimps.

 

And the chair and main presenter of GB News is the most awesomely anti-establishment figure you can imagine: Andrew Neil.  Well, he’s anti-establishment if you look at his CV with one eye closed and the other eye half-open and manage somehow to miss his 11 years as editor of the Sunday Times; his involvement in the founding of Sky TV; his decade as editor-in-chief with the Barclay Brothers’ Press Holdings group, overseeing the Scotsman, the Business and the European; his 15 years as chairman of the publishing company ITP Media Group (also based in Dubai, home of the Sex Pistols and the Clash); and his 17 years with the BBC.  And that villa he owns in the South of France.

 

Anyway, setting the sarcasm aside for a moment… I was aware of Neil’s malign influence in the British media from an early age.  At school at the start of the 1980s, I did a Scottish Higher course in Modern Studies and I remember being advised by the teacher, Sandy Bowick, to read a ‘quality Sunday newspaper like the Observer or the Sunday Times’ every weekend to keep abreast of what was happening politically in the world.  Accordingly, I got into the habit of reading the Sunday Times, which was still under the stewardship of the much-respected Harold Evans.  But tragically, the gimlet-eyed Rupert Murdoch acquired the Sunday Times in 1981 and by 1983 had installed Andrew Neil as its editor.  Neil wasted no time in transforming this once laudable newspaper into the snide, shrill, right-wing shout-sheet that it remains to this day.

 

The Sunday Times wasn’t the only example of a newspaper being subjected to Andrew Neil’s reverse-Midas touch, i.e., instantly turning to shit in his hands.  Hired by the Barclay Brothers in the mid-1990s, newspapers he supervised like the European and the Business suffered declining sales and eventually folded.  Worst of all, he became editor-in-chief of Edinburgh’s one-time quality daily, the Scotsman.  It’s hard to believe today but the Scotsman was a newspaper that once was widely read, made its points intelligently and carried some influence – as much as any newspaper published 400 miles from London could.  Among other things, up until the 1990s, the Scotsman was a keen supporter, in its cautious and genteel way, of constitutional change in Scotland to allow the country more say in running its affairs.

 

In the late 1990s, after spending most of the decade in Japan, I found myself living in Edinburgh and I assumed I’d get into the habit of reading the Scotsman again.  I bought a few issues and gave up.  It’d suddenly acquired an unpleasantly right-wing editorial tone.  It was scathing about the idea that Scotland should get any degree of home-rule from London, even though the Scottish population had just voted for the creation of a devolved Scottish parliament in a referendum in 1997.  Hold on, I thought.  Hadn’t the Scotsman, the old Scotsman, been in favour of Scottish devolution?  Then one night I saw Neil’s visage on a Scottish current affairs programme, where he was introduced as ‘editor-in-chief at the Scotsman’.  Horribly, it all fell into place for me.  Oh no, he’s back, I despaired. Returned to wreck yet another, once perfectly-good newspaper.

 

I suspect Neil’s tenure at the Scotsman alienated the Scottish demographic that it needed to survive as a healthy business concern.  I knew plenty of folk in Edinburgh who were around my age and, like me, were centre or left politically and interested in current affairs.  They weren’t young enough to be into new-fangled digital media and would have happily bought a traditional, physical newspaper if they thought it was worth reading. But whenever its name came up in conversation, such people would shrug and say dismissively, “The Scotsman?  Never read it now.”

 

Although Neil had nothing to do with the Scotsman after it was acquired by the London-based Johnston Press in 2005, the newspaper remained on the right, where he’d dragged it, and never recovered from the dose of journalistic syphilis it’d contracted from him during his regime.  By 2018, it was in the hands of JPIMedia and had a daily circulation figure – the one currently quoted on its Wikipedia page – of under 16,400 copies.  It’d had to lay off staff-members, reduce its numbers of pages and supplements, and flit from its old headquarters on Holyrood Road to a new one on Queensferry Road that was less than half the size and a third of the rent.  The last time I looked at it, much of what it printed was either shallow and vacuous, or hysterical, kneejerk, Daily Mail / Daily Express-style crap.

 

You’d think that with his antipathy to all things mild-mannered, lily-livered, pussyfooting and, well, woke, Andrew Neil would have given the BBC a body-swerve.  And yet during the past two decades he’s done very nicely out of the venerable corporation.  Most prominently, he hosted the BBC’s This Week programme (2003-2019), in which Michael Portillo, Diane Abbott and him would sit in a studio and discuss the week’s current affairs whilst indulging in a gruesome three-way mutual-admiration / flirtation fest.  Indeed, at the time, I thought it was the most fascinatingly dreadful thing on British television.  Not only did Neil and co. believe they were offering cutting insights into the nation’s politics, but they also seemed to think they were cool.  Funny, even.  And nothing is worse than people who think they’re funny, but aren’t funny, trying to be funny.

 

For example, I can think of few things more ludicrous than the sight of Neil and Portillo prancing around in the style of the video for Peter Kay’s chart-topping Is This the Way to Amarillo, as they did during the title sequence of one episode in 2005.  At least in 2018, when they got Bobby Gillespie from the impeccable post-punk, alternative-rock band Primal Scream onto This Week to talk about Brexit – yes, this is a strange sentence I find myself writing – Gillespie summed up the viewers’ feelings at the episode’s end.  By this point, Neil, Michael Portillo and Caroline Flint (drafted in as a replacement for Diane Abbott) had jumped up and starting cavorting around the studio in the manner of the briefly popular, crap Internet dance craze the Skibidi Challenge.  Not only did Gillespie refuse to take part in this cringe-inducing farrago, but he sported the stony countenance of a man who’d just discovered a giant dog turd on the end of his shoes.  (Mind you, having Michael Portillo dad-dancing beyond the ends of your shoes wouldn’t be much better.)

 

 ©BBC / From clashmusic.com

 

I’ve written scornfully about Andrew Neil and GB News and the guff they’ve tried to peddle about being some courageous, anti-establishment bulwark against a supposed tidal wave of wokeness.  It’s complete disingenuous garbage.  However, I have no doubt that they’ll find an audience.  One thing about right-wingers is their unswayable belief that they’re the victims, even when a mountain-range of evidence proves they’re actually the victors.  Britain has been in thrall to right-wing doctrines since the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher proclaimed there was ‘no such thing as society’, till today, when those in power claim to belong to the Conservative Party but are basically Nigel Farage’s reactionary, xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in all but name.  For a few years in the middle, Tony Blair might have constituted a blip, but he was hardly a left-wing blip.  Yet in the paranoid minds of right-wing Britons in 2021, the nonsensical belief that everything they hold dear is threatened by Marxists and social justice warriors is probably more intense than ever.

 

He might be an utter chancer, but there’ll always be plenty of deluded souls willing to lap up Andrew Neil’s brand of bullshit.

The comedian with nine-and-a-half fingers

 

© BBC

 

I’m still too busy with work commitments to put any new material on this blog.  However, here is a slightly updated version of something I posted a few years ago.  Appropriately for today, March 17th and St Patrick’s Day, it’s a tribute to the greatest Irishman of the late 20th century.

 

16 years after his death, I still regard the Irishman Dave Allen as the best stand-up comedian ever.  Allen was known to many British TV viewers during his heyday in the 1970s as ‘the comedian with half-a-finger’, although he once pointed out that he was actually ‘the comedian with nine-and-a-half-fingers’.

 

When I was a kid living in Northern Ireland and when the Dave Allen Show (1968-86) was at the height of its popularity on BBC1, he was the undisputed King of Comedy for me.  I didn’t always understand the jokes and stories he told his studio audience, though my parents invariably guffawed at them.  However, I loved it when the glass of whisky he sipped from at the side of his chair – despite being a ‘stand-up’ comedian, he spent most of his time sitting down – reached a low level and he said, “It’s time for some sketches.”  Those sketches were packed with slapstick and surreal absurdity and were perfect fodder for a ten-year-old.  After they’d shown the sketches and the programme returned to Allen in the studio, his whisky glass would be full again.

 

However, when I look back at the show now, I realise the sketches have weathered the passage of time least well.  Rather, it’s the sections where Allen simply sat and chatted to his audience, marvelling at life’s ridiculousness and telling jokes, anecdotes and yarns, that seem timeless now. These tapped into a tradition of storytelling he was familiar with from his boyhood in Firhouse, Dublin, where his father worked as general manager of the Irish Times.

 

Allen’s formative years were schizophrenic ones.  From all accounts, he had a loving and cultured family at home, but he received his schooling from a succession of priests and nuns who had no compunction about beating their young charges and threatening them with eternal hellfire.  “People used to think of the nice, sweet little ladies,” he once said of those nuns.  “They used to knock the f**k out of you, in the most cruel way that they could.  They’d find bits of your body that were vulnerable to intense pain…  The priests were the same.”

 

It’s fair to say that during his professional career Allen got his revenge on the Catholic clergy who’d persecuted him in his schooldays, both through his verbal routines in the studio and through his sketches, which provided a seemingly inexhaustible supply of gags about priests, nuns, monks, altar boys, bishops and, occasionally, the Pope himself.

 

Taking pops at organised religion and at any kind of authority (for Allen was no fan of politicians either) was brave for a stand-up comedian on British TV in the 1970s, when the safe targets were considered to be mothers-in-law and ‘wimin’ generally, and blacks, Pakistanis, homosexuals and, indeed, Irish people.  However, in the history of British comedy, Allen wasn’t just important for his anti-authoritarian streak.  Although some of material consisted of traditionally structured jokes and punchlines, some of it too was based on his observations of everyday life and its absurdities.  In fact, he was doing observational humour long before the Alternative Comedy boom of the 1980s turned such humour into a stand-up staple.

 

Allen’s mocking of Catholicism earned him a TV ban in the Irish Republic.  This made me feel almost privileged to be living in Northern Ireland, where I could watch his show on the BBC.  Also, of course, I felt privileged to be a Northern Irish Protestant, so that I could laugh at all those gags about the Pope doing stripteases and performing somersaults down the aisles of Vatican chapels, bishops lusting after sexy nuns, priests sprinkling holy water over their ironing, altar boys breaking wind, confession boxes turning into dodgem cars, etc., without suffering Catholic guilt and fearing I’d be damned to eternal hellfire.  Though in the interests of religious equality I should say that I remember him cracking a lot of jokes about the Reverend Ian Paisley too.

 

Predictably, Allen also earned the ire of clean-up-TV campaigner Mrs Mary Whitehouse, head of the National Viewers and Listeners Association, Britain’s equivalent of the Moral Majority.  She once described one of Allen’s sketches, involving a post-coital conversation between a husband and wife, as ‘offensive, indecent and embarrassing’.  Incidentally, when I did some research on Mrs Whitehouse recently, I discovered that in 1977 her organisation gave an award for ‘wholesome family entertainment’ to Jimmy Savile.

 

Allen was said to have received death-threats from the Provisional IRA for putting the nose of Ireland’s Catholic establishment out of joint.  However, Danny Morrison, the former IRA man and editor of the Republican News, has claimed that Dave Allen was actually a big hit with his old terrorist colleagues, especially when they were incarcerated.  “Dave Allen was a major hit with Republican prisoners.  We all loved his show.  We particularly loved his anti-clerical material.  You have to remember that Dave Allen was a subversive in the Seventies.  He was anti-establishment, and you couldn’t get more anti-establishment than us, so we identified with him.”  So it sounds like during the 1970s the inmates of the Republican section of Long Kesh were laughing at those stripping and somersaulting Popes, lusty bishops, sexy nuns, comical priests, farting altar boys, bumping confession boxes, etc., as heartily as us Protestants were.

 

As well as his comedy shows in the 1970s, Allen hosted a documentary series where he would track down and interview eccentrics, oddballs and people who generally lived their lives not giving a toss about what other people thought of them.  Though they aren’t remembered today, Allen’s documentary programmes created a blueprint for later programme-makers like Louis Theroux.  Unlike Theroux’s trouble-seeking, if-I-give-them-enough-rope-they’ll-hang-themselves approach, however, Allen was genuinely interested in and respectful of his subjects’ eccentricities.

 

Dave Allen should have thrived during the 1980s.  After all, this was when a younger generation of comics made British comedy less about traditional joke-telling and more about lampooning authority and observing life’s absurdities, stuff Allen had been doing for years.  But his TV appearances became less frequent.  He did, however, enjoy an acclaimed run doing a comedy show in London’s West End.  I heard people claim at the time that Allen was such a genius he went onstage each evening without any script and simply talked about whatever came into his head.  From what I’ve learned subsequently, things weren’t quite so freeform.  Allen worked with scriptwriters and those writers sat in the front row of the audience holding up cards with keywords written on them, to keep his mind running in the right direction, if not exactly on track.

 

Dave Allen made his final TV series, of purely stand-up material, in the early 1990s.  I know some fans of his shows twenty years earlier who felt uncomfortable with these later performances.  Allen, now noticeably greyer, saggier and wrinklier, sounded a lot more acerbic than he had when he’d been perched on that 1970s chair with his whisky-glass, his slapstick sketches and his congenial Irish charm.  The routines were more observational than ever but were invested now with an old man’s cantankerousness, with Allen venting his spleen on monosyllabic teenagers, supermarket queues, dog-lovers, retirement and the aging process generally.

 

One of Allen’s most memorable tirades at this time went: “You wake to the clock, you go to work to the clock, you clock in to the clock, you clock out to the clock, you come home to the clock, you eat to the clock, you drink to the clock, you go to bed to the clock, you get up to the clock, you go back to work to the clock… You do that for forty years of your life and you retire. What do they f**king give you? A clock!”  As the F-word was still a big no-no on British television at the time, questions were raised about him in the House of Commons.

 

And that was pretty much it for Allen’s public appearances until his death in 2005.  His later low profile was due partly to ill-health and partly to his desire for a quiet and stress-free retirement.  And he managed to take with him to the grave the true story about what’d happened to his missing half-finger, although over the years he’d teased reporters, interviewers and audiences with tall tales about it.  He once told Clive James that his brother had knocked him on the jaw while he had the finger in his mouth, causing him to chomp it off.  And I seem to recall him telling a journalist for Loaded magazine that it’d been devoured by his own arsehole one night when that orifice was feeling particularly hungry.

 

Here’s some Youtube footage of Allen, a self-described ‘practising atheist’, subjecting the Book of Genesis to his own, inimitable scrutiny.

 

© BBC / From the Daily Telegraph

The real Princess Diana

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames

 

2020 has been a rotten year and I suspect it still has more rottenness in store.  One of the many reasons why I’ve found it so godawful has been because it’s seen the deaths of two actresses who meant a lot to me, firstly because they both had leading roles in James Bond movies and I’m a big James Bond fan, and secondly because they both starred in one of my favourite TV shows, The Avengers (1961-69).  I’m talking, of course, about Honor Blackman, who died in April, and now Diana Rigg, who died last week.

 

I never got to see Diana Rigg perform on stage, where she appeared in plays by Edward Albee, Bertolt Brecht, Anton Chekov, Noel Coward, Henrik Ibsen, Molière, Jean Racine, George Bernard Shaw, Tom Stoppard, Tennessee Williams and, obviously, William Shakespeare.  Nor did I catch her when, after becoming a Dame in the mid-1990s and being recognised as a national treasure, she appeared in prestigious TV productions like Rebecca (1997) or Victoria & Albert (2001), both of which resulted in her winning or being nominated for Emmy Awards.  I was living abroad and didn’t have access to English-language TV at the time.

 

I didn’t even watch her much-praised performance as Olenna Tyrell in the TV show Game of Thrones from 2013 to 2017, since I thought I should first read the George R.R. Martin books on which the show was based – something I’ve yet to get around to doing.

 

Despite what I’ve missed, however, I offer here a collection of Diana Rigg performances that I have seen and remember fondly.

 

Playing Tracy di Vincenzo in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is ostensibly about James Bond (George Lazenby in his one-and-only shot at the role) tangling with his arch-enemy Ernst Stavros Blofeld (Telly Savalas).  However, it also explores Bond’s emotional side and highlights his vulnerability.  Key to this is OHMSS’s sub-plot about the romance between Bond and Contessa Theresa ‘Tracy’ di Vicenzo (Rigg), daughter of the boss of the crime syndicate the Unione Corse of Corsica.  At the film’s end, Blofeld is seemingly vanquished and Bond and Tracy get married.  Then Blofeld makes a sudden reappearance in the final scene, sprays their honeymoon car with bullets, kills Tracy and leaves Bond as a babbling wreck.

 

Fascinatingly, for a film franchise that’s often accused of de-humanising the Ian Fleming novels that inspired it and emphasising big, dumb spectacle at the expense of characterisation, Tracy is a more fleshed-out character in OHMSS-the film than in OHMSS-the-novel.  She’s given more to do and, played by Rigg, has a sparkle that’s missing in the rather aloof, ambiguous character that Fleming sketches.

 

© Eon Productions

 

Particularly memorable is her appearance after Bond escapes from Blofeld’s Alpine headquarters.  Hunted by Blofeld’s henchmen, exhausted, frightened even – something that Lazenby, despite or perhaps because of his acting inexperience, conveys well – he takes refuge in a crowded Christmas market / ice rink in the local town.  Just as he thinks he not going to make it, Rigg comes to his rescue, unexpectedly skating into view in front of him like some heaven-sent angel of mercy.

 

Playing Sonya Winter in The Assassination Bureau (1969)

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service wasn’t the only instance in 1969 of Diana Rigg rubbing shoulders with Telly Savalas.  In Basil Deardon’s black comedy The Assassination Bureau (based on an unfinished Jack London novel), she plays an aspiring female journalist in Edwardian London sent by Savalas’s unscrupulous newspaper proprietor to investigate a secret criminal organisation offering assassins for hire.  Armed with a bagful of money that Savalas has provided, Rigg brazenly hires this Assassination Bureau to assassinate its own chairman, Ivan Dragomiloff, who’s played by Oliver Reed.  Admiring Rigg’s audacity, Reed accepts the commission and, with her in tow, spends the movie zigzagging around Europe dodging the efforts of his own board of directors to kill him.

 

It’s a pleasantly silly film and, admirably, doesn’t waste any time in setting up its convoluted premise and getting into the action.  Rigg is delightful as the uppity Sonya Winter, determinedly doing her job and flying the flag for women’s rights amid a world of starchy, patronising male chauvinists.  Meanwhile, Reed had only just played the brutish Bill Sikes in Oliver! (1968) and at the time was in contention to play James Bond, although his reputation for drunken offscreen hi-jinks put 007 producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman off the idea.  His pairing with Rigg in The Assassination Bureau is no beauty-and-the-beast affair, however.  He dials down the roughness and dials up the charm so that their chemistry together is actually very pleasing.

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

Playing Edwina Lionheart in Theatre of Blood (1973)

Douglas Hickox’s brilliant comedy-horror movie Theatre of Blood has Vincent Price as an insane and hammily over-the-top Shakespearean actor who starts killing the snobbish London theatre critics who’ve bad-mouthed his performances, using murders methods borrowed from the Bard’s plays.  “They’re not going to start killing critics for giving bad notices, are they?” exclaims the campest critic Meredith Merridew, played by Robert Morley, who eventually meets a grisly fate modelled on events in Titus Andronicus.  As the corpses pile up, murdered in ways suggested by Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, Cymbeline, Richard III, Henry VI: Part One and even The Merchant of Venice (Price rewrites it so that he can extract a pound of flesh from Harry Andrews), the youngest and least obnoxious critic, played by Ian Hendry, and the investigating police officers, played by Milo O’Shea and Eric Sykes, turn to Lionheart’s supposedly normal daughter, Edwina (Rigg), for help.

 

Distraught about what her father is doing, yet repulsed by the critics who destroyed his career, Edwina is initially a troubled and conflicted character.  Yet as the film progresses, it transpires that Rigg is having as much fun in her role as the Bard-quoting, soliloquizing Price is in his.

 

Taking the mickey out of herself in The Morecambe and Wise Show (1975), The Great Muppet Caper (1981) and Extras (2006)

Rigg never took herself too seriously.  She teamed up with Britain’s most famous comic double-act Morecambe and Wise for their 1975 Christmas TV special, where she appeared in the inevitable Ernie Wise-penned play.  This featured Rigg as Nell Gwynne, Eric Morecambe as Charles II and Wise as Samuel Pepys.  (“Have you read Ernie’s play?” demands Morecambe.  “Yes, I have,” replies Rigg.  “And you’re still here?”)  Better still is her appearance in The Great Muppet Caper, the second movie starring Jim Henson’s much-loved puppets, in which she plays the snooty fashion designer Lady Holiday, who’s robbed of her jewellery by a gang led by her devious brother (Charles Grodin).  Predictably, Miss Piggy approaches Rigg in the hope of securing a job as a fashion model and insists on showing Rigg her portfolio: “This is me reeking grandeur!”

 

And then there’s a 2006 episode of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy show Extras, which is about a struggling actor (Gervais) trying to make ends meet with bit-parts and uncredited roles in films and on television.  This scenario enables the show’s gimmick of having real, famous actors and actresses play versions of themselves – usually twisted, unpleasant versions.  In this particular episode, Gervais gets a three-day job in a new fantasy film starring the then-17-year-old Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Diana Rigg.  The joke is that Radcliffe is a randy, boorish and clueless teenager.  Whilst eating with him in the studio canteen, Radcliffe tries to convince Gervais that he’s a man of the world by whipping a condom out of his pocket – he’s unravelled it but seems to think he can still put it on – and then accidentally pings it through the air to a nearby table, where it lands on the unamused Rigg’s head.  Radcliffe asks her for his ‘johnny back’ and gets a schoolmistress-ly reply: “May I have my prophylactic back, please?”

 

Later, Radcliffe sidles up to her and inquires, “You still got that catsuit from The Avengers?”  Rigg retorts: “Go away, Daniel.”

 

© BBC / HBO

 

And that brings me nicely to…

 

Playing Emma Peel in The Avengers (1965-67)

By the time Rigg joined The Avengers in the mid-1960s, the show, under the guidance of creator Brian Clemens, had gradually mutated from being a conventional action / thriller show with Patrick Macnee’s John Steed and Ian Hendry’s Dr David Keel as a pair of crime-fighters to being a television phenomenon that did everything on its own terms, both determinedly non-realistic and restlessly inventive.

 

Rigg’s tenure on The Avengers was surely its golden era.  With her Emma Peel character partnering Macnee’s now surreally debonair Steed, and the show being broadcast in colour for the first time, it was a self-confident cocktail of the funny, the silly, the fantastical, the baroque and, occasionally, the gothic and the kinky.  (The kinkiness factor came to the fore in an episode called A Touch of Brimstone, wherein Rigg dons a costume comprising a spiked collar, whalebone corset, black leather boots and a snake.  Funnily enough, this attracted the highest viewing figures of any episode in The Avengers’ eight-year history.)

 

Rigg brought to the show a bemused, unruffled quirkiness that was the equal of Macnee’s majestic imperturbability.  She was also his equal in being proactive, having no qualms about wading into fights to show off her martial arts prowess or hurtling around in a Lotus Elan.  As a villain in one episode remarked, “She’s well and truly emancipated, is that one.”

 

Rigg wasn’t comfortable about the fact, but Emma Peel also became a sex symbol.  She couldn’t well avoid it, being ephemerally gorgeous and clad in a succession of leather catsuits, mini-skirts and mod-inspired outfits that, inevitably, ended up being sold in the ladies’ fashion shops of the real Britain.  Wisely, though, sex was off the agenda in her character’s onscreen relationship with Macnee’s Steed.  The two indulged in a relaxed, platonic flirtatiousness and left it at that.  Macnee did get a kiss from her at the end of her final episode on the show, when she left him with the parting advice: “Always keep your bowler on in times of stress, and watch out for diabolical masterminds.”

 

Appearing at the height of the swinging 1960s, but tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted rather than smug, which is how I find many productions from the time, The Avengers, and especially the Emma Peel-era Avengers, projects a charming and not-taking-itself-seriously notion of Britishness that seems light-years removed from the discredited, embittered, clapped-out Britain of 2020.  The death of Diana Rigg, who’d been one of the last links with the show, just seems to emphasise that it’s now all in the past.

 

© ITV / ABC / Thames