Sunday, 30 January 2011

David Bowie (1967)

I've already mentioned how I came to be introduced to the music of David Bowie. At my nana's old house, listening to Ziggy Stardust: The Motion Picture over and over again on a long, faux-walnut home entertainment centre from the 1940s, with sliding doors for hiding bottles of sherry and a massive radio with a huge bakalite tuning button - and a little record player with a forty year old stylus ripping new grooves in 'Moonage Daydream'.

From that moment I became a Bowie obsessive, to a far greater extent than I ever came to love one single author or one specific tv series. I adored the Flashman novels and Doctor Who as a kid (and still do), but only when I was reading or watching; Bowie on the other hand was always around.

After The Motion Picture I saved up whatever money came my way and bought the albums which seemed linked to it - Ziggy Stardust itself, The Man Who Sold the World and - on one glorious day upstairs in John Menzies in Princes Street - both Pin Ups and Hunky Dory. Has there ever been a greater run of albums? Now, a quarter of a century later, I can still remember the continual thrills of sheer pleasure I got from each of these first listens. Had Bowie ever recorded anything which wasn't immediately obviously a work of genius?

Well, yes and no.

For a start, the word 'chameleon' is probably defined in the OED as, in part, 'pertaining to David Bowie'. Liking one era of his recorded output is no guarantee of liking the next, as any number of early 80s hipsters no doubt discovered when they bought Low on the back of liking the singles from Let's Dance. Bowie jumps around genre, steals willy nilly from other artists, drops successful sounds in favour of non-commerical ones on a whim. He rarely stays still for long.

And evidently it's not somethign he grew in to, a fact which is immediately apparent when listening to his first studio album, the eponymous David Bowie.

It's impossible, I think, to come up with another artist who's made so many massive and yet successful changes in direction as Bowie did time and again, and it all started here. From this album's whimsical, English music hall to folky hippydom to sex-obsessed Glam Rock - in the space of a few years and a couple of albums. Consequently, Bowie's brief early years do contain chunks of music which seem hard to place in a logical, consistent and organic timeline.

David Buckley described this record as "the vinyl equivalent of the madwoman in the attic" and while that probably suggests a greater degree of sound and fury than is merited, Gus Dudgeon's claim that it was the 'weirdest thing Deram had ever put out" seems closer to the mark.

It certainly stands alone even in the Summer of Love, eschewing the sort of hippy sex and peace concerns suggested by the psychedelic cover font in favour of a succession of mini-stories, flavoured by vaudeville and music hall rather than drugs and free love (the drug and, well, gang obsessed 'Join the Gang' is the odd track out in this respect).

Maybe it's that which causes any search for musical fellow travellers for David Bowie to lead only to individual songs rather than entire lps: bits and pieces of the Beatles output (most obviously John Lennon's 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite'), occasional Kinks' tracks and obscure British psych acts like The Blossom Toes (I may, in fact, have made that last band up!).

Plus, of course, Anthony Newley, on whose vocal sound this entire album is based.

Leaving aside Newley (musically, a dead end even if the conscious model for Bowie at this point) the Beatles more whimsical moments are, in fact, the closest popular match for these early Bowie tracks. Utilising brass and strings, recording tracks with odd timings ('Maid of Bond Street' is in waltz time, for example), and injecting humour via the spoken word and funny voices ('Please Mr Gravedigger' in particular) are all elements which have a mirror in Yellow Submarine/Pepper-era Beatles.

That the Beatles' tracks generally work far better is a given - Bowie was definitely still an emerging artist, searching for a voice of his own, but there are things to admire in this first, uneven recording.

Most obviously, it's simple to trace certain of the themes which Bowie embraced right up until the early 80s in this very early and atypical work. 'She's Got Medals' deals with cross-dressing and trans-gender issues, 'Uncle Arthur', 'Maid of Bond Street' and 'Little Bombardier' address unusual, possibly illicitly sexual, relationships and 'We Are Hungry Men' concerns itself with a dictator/Big Brother/messiah figure attempting to save a future dystopian society.

Themes of innocence and childishness, however, are very pronounced on David Bowie and are also the areas in which Bowie moves furthest away from the straight music hall and in the direction of the Syd Barrett/Gong style nursery rhymes which made up another strand of very British psychedelia.

'When I Live my Dream', 'There is a Happy Land' and 'Silly Boy Blue' set the template for a fair portion of Bowie's songs prior to his helping invent heavy metal with The Man Who Sold the World. Swooping strings and overblown and fantastic lyrics (reincarnation, slaying dragons and a 'special place in the rhubarb fields' all on one album!) combine with fears that the real world is threatening our innocence, all of which congealed in my teenage head to convince me that there was something Bowie-ish in this odd little album.

It might not have been exactly what I was expecting, but that's part of the pleasure of listening to new Bowie albums. That Bowie had discarded all music hall elements by the time he recorded his next album, Space Oddity suggests that he recognised that, even so, this particular approach was not one on which to build a career...

The Great Missing Track

Every Bowie album has a great song which was inexplicably missed off it. In the case of this album, we can stretch things a little and wonder why 'When I'm Five' only made the Love You Til Tuesday soundtrack and not this album. It's a morbid, dark song of childhood illness which ends with the wonderful couplet

"I saw a photograph of Jesus/And I asked him if he'd make me five'.

Really, it deserved to be on this album.

Side one

  1. "Uncle Arthur" – 2:07
  2. "Sell Me a Coat" – 2:58
  3. "Rubber Band" – 2:17
  4. "Love You Till Tuesday" – 3:09
  5. "There Is a Happy Land" – 3:11
  6. "We Are Hungry Men" – 2:58
  7. "When I Live My Dream" – 3:22

Side two

  1. "Little Bombardier" – 3:24
  2. "Silly Boy Blue" – 4:36
  3. "Come and Buy My Toys" – 2:07
  4. "Join the Gang" – 2:17
  5. "She's Got Medals" – 2:23
  6. "Maid of Bond Street" – 1:43
  7. "Please Mr. Gravedigger" – 2:35

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Gulliver's Travels (2010)

We had plumbers and joiners and the like in over the weekend, ripping out hot water tanks and putting in boilers, cutting huge circular holes through our walls and leaving the results lying about like weird stone core samples - and every one of the tradesmen involved was tiny, like a firm of midgets or Oompa Loompas had set up in business together.

So when the youngest son and I had to vacate the premises before we became totally encased in dust, naturally we thought of Gulliver's Travels, currently in the picture houses in kiddie pleasing 3D.

Big mistake.

When you make a movie version of a classic novel you have several choices of approach. First off, you can do a straight adaptation, following the novel in every respect. Or you can update it, in the manner of Baz Luhrmann, to the modern day (or more commonly some sort of fictionalised 1930s fascist state/English country house). Or you can use the basic story and a couple of the names and construct your own story, hopefully reflecting and magnifying the strengths and weaknesses of the original, casting new light on the author's intentions and creating a satisfying new work of art in doing so.

Alternatively, you can strip every single interesting out of the book, replace those bits with a generic and yet still unlikely love story, sprinkle some bad but minor special effects around and chuck it out of the studio to act as multiplex fodder for those looking for something to do on a rainy Sunday.

With a song at the end.

Welcome to Gulliver's Travels, 2010 style.

It starts intriguingly enough, to be fair. Nobody at the travel magazine he works for comments on the fact that Jack Black's character is called Lemuel Gulliver, which suggests either very poor liberal arts educations all round, or that there is no such book as Gulliver's Travels in this universe. Also Lemuel is obviously thought of as a sensible first name. This is alternate universe area and I half expected the shadow of a zeppelin to slide across the ground.

It didn't, but Black plays his usual, loveable loser character with sufficient zest in the first tem minutes that I didn't mind.

Because of Black I also didn't care overly much when, early on, the Gulliver's one minion in the travel mag mail room got promoted to his job and became his boss for no obvious reason. Compare that with my reaction to the equally ludicrous ending where Gulliver is a very successful travel writer going out with his lady love and the promoted mail room guy obviously worships the ground he walks on - I was all for burning down the picture house by that point, having had my fill of lazy, condescending writing for one day.

There were obviously dozens of utterly horrible and perverse creative decisions made when making this movie and every single one is visible on screen, to the extent that mentioning them all would turn this post into some sort of faintly mental looking list of individual scenes. Suffice to mention that towards the end Black sings 'War' by Edwin Starr, with all the little people doing the backing vocals and he and Emily Blunt dancing around, like a sort of live action equivalent of a disney cartoon singing extravaganza - except totally out of place, ineptly choreographed and dully shot (my son thought it was great, but what does he know? He thinks Wife Swap is quality television).

And to think I missed midget plumbers to watch this...

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

'the safe children' - Tom Fletcher & 'what happens when you wake up in the night' - Michael Marshall Smith (Nightjar Press, 2009)

There's something curiously and unexpectedly satisfying about chapbooks.

And it shouldn't be that way, I can't help thinking. Surely only having one story to read is a horrible thing? What if it's great and you finish it and...nothing. No second story to hand to devour, nor another then another. It should be hellish (assuming the story is great - a chapbook of Jeffrey Archer's short stories would contain exactly one story too many, for instance). But it's not.

Even when, as with these two brief tales, I really wanted to read more. Instead - and this may be entirely down to the fact that both are horror stories and thus gave me the willies - I found myself perfectly satisfied with one story; sometimes you want a full meal with multiple courses and all the trimmings, but at other times a perfectly formed single delicious snack is all that you need. Each of these brief stories achieves its purpose - to creep out, freak out and mess up the heads of their readers and, frankly, I'm not convinced I could have read any more in the same vein, certainly not at one in the morning which is when I read these two.

Tom Fletcher is pretty well known nowadays for his debut novel The Leaping (and not forgetting his sparkling contribution to The Obverse Book of Ghosts, also featuring yours truly in a minor role) which I think came out after 'the safe children', so kudos to Nightjar bigwig Nicholas Royle for choosing Fletcher to launch his new venture. There's presumably a name for the sub-genre of horror which isn't supernatural and isn't about serial killers, but I'm afraid I'm not sufficiently well versed in the horror field to know.

Suffice to say that I would call it 'oh christ - that's really, really disgusting'.

In a good way, you understand, even if not in a pleasant one. There's no suggestion of emotional manipulation in the subject matter for all that it the tabloid's would have kittens if they read it and Fletcher was a bigegr name.  But this is a beautifully constructed story, luring the reader in with a sympathetic POV character, a down on his luck security guard delighted to have got a job guarding a large factory, even if his boss is a little melodramatic and unnecessarily mysterious. From there we follow the guard as he settles in, then makes a discovery which, at first, seems likely to be pretty horrific before - unexpectedly - becoming both less horrific and far more.

But definitely - definitely - more disgusting.

Michael Marshall Smith's entry, on the other hand, is what I would consider to be more traditional horror territory, focusing on the fears of a small child in the dark. Which means that it's less visceral and gross than Fletcher's story, but also far, far more scary. Seriously - this story of a little girl and the things her parents do to get her to go to sleep will keep you awake of a winter night. It's difficult to say much else without spoiling the story but once again one trawl round the author's mind was enough - I seriously doubt I could have read a second and as it was I'd have put the bedroom light on if I'd had the courage to get out of bed :)

I've been meaning to buy the second and successive sets of these chapbooks for a while now - reading these first releases has pushed those purchases into essential territory.

You can buy Nightjar chapbooks here

Thursday, 20 January 2011


I've been reading Nick Campbell's book blog, A Pile of Leaves, for ages, in part with fascination and in part with jealousy at the beautiful way he writes. And when yesterday he wrote about libraries and the need to defend them from closure without recourse to nostalgia, I nodded fiercely (and figuratively - I don't want to look a nutter at work). There's no need for nostalgia to bolster an argument when the premise (that libraries are essential to the well being of our nation) is so obviously and self-evidently true.

But then I got to thinking about the various libraries I have frequented over my lifetime, and recognised that I find it impossible to separate the concept of Libraries from the reality of my Libraries.

From the one in MacDonald Road where my mum says I was the youngest ever member aged two, through the mobile library which pulled into our square once a week when I was growing up, with its little raised bit at the back for books which weren't easily included in General Fiction, and its treasure trove of Tintin hardbacks and Target paperbacks.

Not forgetting the Central Library in town, a massive, ornate Victorian edifice on multiple levels, where the fiction section was a disappointing room with white-washed walls and a series of cheap plastic stands.

Or the National Library, only open to serious scholars like me in the final year of my degree, ostensibly there to read Edmund Morgan on slavery and critical studies of Dickens, but instead filling in slips to have Laura Ingalls and Stanley Elkin books delivered to my desk.

And finally (in terms of regular use at least) the Edinburgh University library, which we used primarily for its cafe, a cheap coffee shop with a pool table and ten pence Shinobi machine, and where I first heard that Thatcher was gone, as a student burst in the doors, arms aloft, like someone declaring the end of the war. Everybody cheered and one girl had tears in her eyes and it really did feel like a wonderful, unexpected victory. Wild hyperbole on all our parts, but there you go - that's what universities are for, university libraries even more so.

I don't go to the library so much now, though I do occasionally take the kids to the one round the corner from the house. But now the internet makes it so simple to buy books - and so cheap - there seems less need for me to wander around the library with my head at an odd angle, looking for that random gem on the shelves. And the introduction of computers and children's sections full of toys has scunnered me a bit on the local library in any case. Give me hard floors, and polished wooden chairs, too high stacks of forgotten novels and strangely selective reference sections over the internet and borrowing cds and small boys playing plastic drums in one corner.

But better toys and pcs than nothing at all - and the mobile library only ever had room for books in any case...

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Part of my Past - Simon Dupree and the Big Sound (2004)

Once upon a time I bought two singles from Bruce's Records in the west end of Edinburgh. 'Sunday Girl' by Blondie (which my Auntie Lorna then sat on and broke) and 'Bright Eyes' by Art Garfunkel, which remains one of my favourite singles. Not that anyone should really care about this fact but those two purchases led, thousands upon thousands of records later, to my listening to Part of the Past, the best of the often over-looked Simon Dupree and the Big Sound.

It's not hard to see why they're usually over-looked, to be honest. For a start, they were British but not particularly long-haired or psychedelic (at least to start with). Originally called The Howling Wolves, they played R&B and blues covers and only switched to flower power, stripy shorts and sunglasses after their first couple of R&B singles died a death and they were ordered to change their name and sound by their record company.

Not that Simon Dupree and the Big Sound was the absolute best name for a pseudo-San Francisco psych band to have. The Big Sound are a mid-fifties group, dressed in matching suits and ties, booked to play the 'Enchantment Under the Sea' dance in Back to the Future. They're not a sixties psych band in home knitted kaftans, riffing off Love and the Great Society, they're a covers band, doing note perfect renditions of Pat Boone and Johnny Ray with occasional dips into the down and dirty proto-rock of Bo Diddley.

Or at least that's what the name suggests.

Which is a real shame as some of the tracks on Part of My Past (a double cd which collects pretty much everything they ever recorded), stand in decent comparison to anything on the majestic Arthur Lee and Love's seminal Forever Changes. A track like 'It Is Finished', with it's odd intonation and rushed lyric, would slip onto Forever Changes and nobody would blink an eye - but that's another one of the problems with the band as a whole. While I was listening to this in the car, I found most tracks reminding me of something else - a track or a band or just a general sound.

So 'It is Finished' is classic Love, 'Reservations' is early Kinks, 'Kites' is Scott Walker and so on. It's not necessarily a bad thing at this far remove, where a song which sounds like one of Scott Walker's better efforts is to be applauded, but at the time it must have made marketing the band a bit of a nightmare. 'Kites - the chorus sounds like the weird one from the Walker Brothers!' isn't an obvious promo poster in 1967, after all.

Still 'Kites' made the UK Top 10, even while it died a death in the States, but while the follow-up single got in the top 50, that was as close to mass success the band ever got. Within a couple of years they had recorded a single under the name The Moles, disbanded and then two of the mainstays of the band went off to found the far more dull prog rock band, Gentle Giant.

Interesting fact - one Reg Dwight briefly joined the band as keyboard player on a tour of Scotland. He didn't hang around but changed his name to Elton John and went solo instead.

Part of my Past is available here (under 'Easy Listening', which really just sums up the problems The Big Sound have had).

Monday, 17 January 2011

Biggles:Charter Pilot (1943)

"British political officers don't tell lies", apparently.

As much as 'a veray, parfit, gentil knight' or 'It is a truth universally acknowledged...', that one line from Biggles: Charter Pilot dates the book to sometime slightly before Noah launched the ark.

Well, to 1943 to be exact, slap bang in the middle of World War II, when one would expect the heroic Biggles, doughty Ginger and less easily defined Algy to be fighting Jerry along with the rest of his chums from the curiously numbered 666 Squadron.

And so they are, but in downtime between sorties to rescue downed Allied airmen and while Ginger isn't off on an extended stroll (which occurs about every second story in this collection), the chaps regale the other chaps with tall tales of giant crabs, abominable snowmen, mammoths and dodos.

The dashed bally bounders. It's just not cricket.

But enough of the mockery. It's very easy to poke fun at Biggles and his ilk, lamenting the casual racism, the paternalistic and jingoistic attitudes, and to write them off as antiquated, poorly written pap for non-discriminating schoolboys.

Very easy, and - in the last case at least - utterly wrong.

Because you'd have not to have read them to think they're badly written. These books, like the best of the earlier Target novelisations of Doctor Who, say, are functionally and effectively written, with plain but readable prose. they do what they're supposed to - entertain and divert. The stories in Charter Pilot are each around half a dozen frantic action-packed pages long, with no diversions for extended metaphor or long, luxurious descriptions of the scenery. A quick introductory scene in which Ginger mentions some implausible adventure ('ah yes, that's a memento of the time I was gored by a mammoth, don't you know'), then we're off, straight into the story itself.

There is racism of the sort commonplace in the first half of the 20th century, and women are pretty much ignored. Foreigners are portrayed as superstitious savages (cannibals if black, and cowardly ne-er-do-wells if white), and everyone not British is treated with a degree of condescension and patronisation which wouldn't wash today. BUt as this wasn't written today, that hardly matters and as I rattled through the dozen stories in an hour and a half, I can't say I cared. Like a Jules Verne seventy years on, this is almost science fiction, and like Alan Moore fifty years early, it's also a mash-up of all sorts of genres and types.

It's not played for laughs, ironic and knowing or otherwise though. I loved the way in which Ginger never seems to be lying or exaggerating - he has to be cajoled to tell every story and even then makes a point every time of re-assuring his listeners that Biggles could back up every word. The stories even manage to have a realism lacking in many similar Boys Own Tales, with half the stories being resolved by Biggles et al running away.

Ginger even claims that every story has a logical, scientific explanation behind it (except when it doesn't). Which makes it a bit disappointing when everything falls apart in the face of the wildly inaccurate science used to shore that claim up.

Is it really plausible that filling a pit with dead crocodiles would lead both to a new type of mushroom orchid and a new kind of co-operative killer worm being spontaneously generated from the pit in the space of a few years? Or that five foot wide underwater crabs could rise to the surface on a giant island made of pumice stone, worked loose from the ocean floor? Or that giant Patagonians could be descended from ship-wrecked 14th century mariners, made gigantic by a mixture of moss and mussel soup? Not really, but again it doesn't matter - the stories are so short that they're finished before you start thinking 'that's just stupid' and you're off onto the next one, stopping on your way only to nod approvingly at the accuracy of the description of Plato as a 'lecturer'. At least they got their liberal arts information right...

I wouldn't recommend reading a lot of Biggles book in a row, but if you're looking for an atypical but thoroughly entertaining read for a short train journey or a rainy afternoon, you could do a lot worse than this.

Biggles: Charter Pilot is available here.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Top Five Books of 2010

Prompted by the inclusion of The Obverse Book of Ghosts inclusion in at least one reader's Top Reads of 2010, I thought I'd belatedly do mine, with the obvious proviso that I don't buy that many brand new books, so this is books I read in 2010, rather than the best books released in 2010.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke

It's a fantasy novel which is over a thousand pages long, it's filled with footnotes, and I see someone called it the 'adult Harry Potter'. I should have hated it - but I loved it, reading it first of all the books I had with me on our two week cruise round the mediterranean.

It's a sign of how good it is, and how much the prose and the sheer volume of clever ideas drag you in that I had no issue with carrying a book the size of a small bungalow round the 100 degree heat of Sicily and Rome. I loved to find myself sitting with Julie in some cafe or other in the shade, drinking cold beer and eating rolls jammed full of mozarella and ham, while Strange moved whole armies by magic in the Peninsular War and Mr Norrell sat and brooded.

The Box of Ho Sen
Anthony Skene (in Sexton Blake Wins!)

All the stories in this slightly tatty looking 1980s collection of Blake novellas is worth a read, but the best by far is Skene's 'The Box of Ho Sen'. If Blake is known at all to the public today, it's as a cut price and shoddy rival to Sherlock Holmes or (for those with unpleasant memories of the various Sexton Blake Library releases of the mid to late sixties) as a seedy investigator of blackmail and kidnapping.

Which is a real shame as he's so much more than that in his prime.

'The Box of Ho Sen' is an example of the very best of Blake, with Zenith the Albino in opposition and a suitably fiendish, convoluted and cunning plot for the reader - and Blake - to get his teeth into.

What makes it particularly stand out though, both in terms of Blake and in terms of my reading last year, is the character of Zenith who is nowhere better described and utliised than here.

"Sooner or later someone, whether it might be a police constable on the beat or his arch-enemy, Sexton Blake, the private detective of Baker Street, would succeed in arresting him and conducting him towards a police station. Then he would simply smoke one of the tiny opium cigarettes which he carried in a platinum case within his waistcoat pockets. Nobody smoked those cigarettes save himself, and one of them was marked by a crimson ring. That was death; and if all else failed and he saw that he was doomed to imprisonment, there was always that cigarette which he might smoke and thus obtain release. What did it matter? Only those who enjoy life fear death; and to Zenith life was a constant reminder of his abnormality."

You don't get that degree of layering in your Bond villains, do you? Perhaps I'm completely wrong, but give me an opera cloak and suicide fags over a third nipple or a white cat any day...

The Osiris Ritual - George Mann

I should think that amongst the most common reminiscences of a seventies childhood is mention of sitting on the settee on a weekend night, watching a double bill of a Universal and a Hammer horror movie. J and I both remember watching shadowy black and white Mummies and luridly colourful Draculas on a Friday night, sitting up on the settee, eating crisps and hiding behind our mums.

They just don't make horror movies like that anymore. Nowadays the movies are full of young girls being disembowelled and dead aliens dreaming of slaughter and mayhem from the bottom of a well, but back then it was heaving bosoms as far as the eye could see and every second film was either set in mittel Europe or in swinging London.

George Mann's Newbury and Hobbes books are the point at which the Hammer movies crash into the Universal ones by way of a steampunk highway. A mummy's curse is pure Universal, a slaughtered archaeologist sheer Hammer and the villainous Ashford is completely brilliant steampunk, a man-machine version of Callan, dripping gobbets of rotting flesh.

Wonderful stuff, to be continued in 2011 it seems!

The Bride that Time Forgot
- Paul Magrs

Reviewers of old used to talk about 'rich confections' and 'heady cocktails', gluttonous metaphors for novels so packed with magnificent incident and glorious wonder that you can almost taste them. That's te Brenda and Effie series of novels in a nutshell.

The Bride of Frankenstein (now a B&B owner) and her best friend, a witch, live in Whitby, sinkhole of sheer badness that it is, solving crimes, fighting evil and sending the minions of Hell back where they belong (underneath Whitby, it turns out). What's not to love?

This fifth book in a series which began with Never the Bride and gets better with each instalment was a present in December which I put to one side to savour over the holidays. Picking it up on the 28th of December I'd read the entire thing by the evening of the 29th (and it's not like I'm not busy at that time of year!).

Mental, metafictional and magnificient, this is another series I'd like to see continue for ever - and spread out to TV (with Annette Crosbie as Effie, please).

Space Captain Smith - Toby Frost

I love pulps, I love square jawed heroes and I love science fiction, so this tale of a square jawed pulp hero in space was never going to have to struggle to win me over. I'd read Space Vulture, a more deliberate homage to the pulps, early in the year and enjoyed it hugely, but the writing, wit and inventiveness on display here easily eclipsed that earlier read.

Skewering all sorts of sf standards in an affectionate manner, battering British cliches round the head and generally tweaking the nose of everything Smith comes in contact with - perfect summer reading for anyone who's sat through a pompous English movie from the thirties or yawned through the interminable dullness of 2001 : A Space Odyssey.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Instruction Manual for Swallowing - Adam Marek (Comma Press, 2007)

You know how real music fans talk about favourite labels? Floppy fringed skinny puppies who are excessively fond of Postcard Records, doe-eyed 80s goths dribbling on about 4AD or neo-Nazi collectors of Factory output? Unlike the big boys - EMI, Virgin and all the other multi-nationals constantly crying that piracy is killing music - the little guys release records which share a certain sound and a particular way of thinking, which is reflected both in the music and its packaging.

It's the same with publishers. My two favourite small presses are Comma Press and Salt Publishing. I'm going to try to avoid using any word even remotely like 'quirky' but the authors they publish do seem to have a similar sensibility and approach to story telling. At Salt and at Comma a group of writers have created short story collections which share a certain off kilter view of the world; stories which seem to take a step back from the humdrum and mundane and which spot the secret things which happen on the periphery of our vision. That sounds terribly pretentious, I know, but I'm struggling to put into words exactly what it is that links these writers and publishers, even while knowing what it is.

An ethos, perhaps. A sense of shared values, even.


Perhaps the best thing to do is talk about one of the books?

Instruction Manual for Swallowing is Adam Marek's first collection according to his website, but I can only assume that he had written pretty widely before creating this compilation of his work. There's little flab on show here, and absolutely no sign that Comma simply collected up every short story he'd ever written, threw a front cover on it and released the new book into the world.

Instead, what we have is a series of highlights, a set of stories where each successive tale trumps the one before it in some respect and where the very best stuck in my mind and popped back up as I lay in bed in the dark.

Like Paul Magrs' Salt collection, Twelve Stories, this is a book about a universe gone slightly and unexpectedly askew. Futuristic tales about metal wasps with red LEDS in their heads and Godzilla rising from the waves and destroying an un-named western city jostle for space with grotesque tales about a woman giving birth to thirty-seven foetuses and suicidal cheerleaders.

These are surreal stories in the proper sense of the word: placing the bizarre into the mundane world, juxtaposing the impossible with the probable, scattering hints of the banal in a universe gone mad. Zombies roam middle England, a man dresses in tea towels and gardening gloves to fight deadly robotic insects and nine foot tall Gilbert and George step out of stained glass into the Tate Modern, wielding giant willies.

It's actually this contrast and the presence of a prosaic background which prevents the book becoming a little too one note for comfort. There's a fine line between 'askew' and 'wacky', but luckily Marek stays on the right side of that line and if the occaisonal story dips a little, it tends to be when - as with the slight tale, 'Sushi Plate Epiphany' - he forgoes this surreal strand and attempts straight-forward story-telling in a straight-forward setting.

At times, I was reminded of John Irving ('Thanks to the monster, he'd stopped dying for a second' ponders the titular hero of 'Testicular Cancer vs the Behemoth'), at others of a more restrained Philip K Dick ('Robot Wasps' and 'A Gilbert and George Talibanimation' in particular) or even David Cronenberg (the slice of gross out horror, best exemplified by 'Belly Full of Rain'), and at others still, of nobody in particular, which was best of all.

Marek is apparently working on a second collection and a novel, but for anyone wanting a taster of this book, you can hear him read 'Testicular Cancer' here.

You can buy Instruction Manual for Swallowing here. And you really should.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Doctor Who and the Cybermen - Gerry Davis (Target Paperback, 1975)

Wester Hailes, 1980 or '81. All concrete and metal, our world really was just half a dozen streets and a bit of wasteland. Plus acres of empty car parks.

Michelle Haig was the Gala Princess. She was going out with me until the Incident of the Big Stone in the Corn Field (about which possibly more another day).

I had my picture taken by the local newspaper in my posh Heriots' uniform and black national health specs before the start of first year, less than jauntily leaning against the harling covered wall of our stair. I look a bit odd, but I suspect I was secretly rather worried someone would see me and come over and belt me one. Plus I was going to school without anyone I knew.

My Granny Betty, who lived downstairs from us, got out of what was her death bed and got dressed for the first time in weeks, and sat up in her big winged back chair, fag in hand, just to see me in my uniform. She died two days later and for years I thought I'd killed her.

My parents had split up that summer. Me and Scott had been playing Japs and Commandoes on The Hill and my mum appeared at the bottom of our stair and shouted for me to come over. 'I'm leaving your dad' she'd said and I'd said 'see you later' to Scott and we'd all gone round to John Armitage's house, because he had a car and could give us a lift to my granny's house.

So it was rubbish sort of time, full of the bad sort of change (the only sort you get when you're eleven) and full of people disappearing.

The Gala was one beautiful warm Saturday that summer, with a parade round the scheme and Michelle in her plastic tiara and pink puffy dress, and I went down to the local high school where there was (in my mind's eye) the biggest jumble sale ever. Table after table stacked high with home baking and old clothes, boxes of Jimmy Shand and Darts albums underneath in the shade, and a massive collection of old paint tables joined together, covered in books, all five and ten pence each.

And lying on the top, upside down but still instantly recognisable was Doctor Who and Cybermen by Gerry Davis. Ten pee and it was mine.

It had the wrong cyberman on the front cover and the story it was based on was actually called The Moonbase, but I didn't find that out for years. What I did was run away home with it and throw myself on my bed. Above my head a long white shelf stretched the length of the wall, containing every single book I owned, each of which I'd read a hundred times each.

All the Who books - twenty or so, I should think - were in strict chronological order, as decreed by Peter Haining, then about the same number again of books I'd got out the library and loved enough to buy instead of buying an LP. So I heard the Owl Call My Name was there, and Familiarity is the Kingdom of the Lost and Little House in the Big Woods. I can still see the yellow cover of the first Flashman book and a Sharpe novel my nana gave me, leaning up against an Asimov short story collection and, I should think, all of James Blish's Star Trek 'novelisations' (bought in an addictive fashion, week after week, every time I had the forty-five pence or whatever, from the old Science Ficiton Bookshop in Clerk Street - a poky, dirty, dusty shop, filled with revolving metal stands jammed with American paperbacks with little notches out the cover and riotously expensive cash-ins about the making of Empire Strikes Back and Buck Rogers).

I spent that afternoon reading Doctor Who and the Cybermen, all the while feeling an actual physical pleasure in my gut at the story and the fact it was a Second Doctor one. A little bit of something from out of history, an anchor in an unsettling and unfixed sort of world, which I could slip securely into place on my shelf once I'd done, ready for me to read again and again.

Friday, 7 January 2011

A Plethora of Puffins

Some things will always remind of being ill as a child. Lying on the settee in the middle of the afternoon, hypnotised by the brown and orange palette of Crown Court, eating saps (white bread soaked in hot milk and sprinkled with sugar) on a tray, the smell of wet clothes hung out in front of the fire - and reading books full of stories of people caught up in unlikely adventures.

Sometimes the books came in carrier bags from my nana, paperback Louis L’Amour westerns, nicotine yellow at the edges, with pencil drawn front covers of dusty cowboys; sometimes library books from the mobile library, wrapped in clear plastic to keep them safe as they passed through a multitude of grubby hands, chosen by my dad and so likely to be Rudyard Kipling or Arthur Ransome, wholesome adventures of posh kids I didn’t really recognise; even occasionally brand new books from W H Smith or Menzies (though in those cases they were invariably Target Doctor Who books. They had to be or the disappointment would undoubtedly have caused a relapse).

My favourite books, though, were what seemed to be a multitude of Puffins and Penguins full of genteel and inexplicable time travel. Children, often sick and frequently poor, would set off on a journey, and once there they would stumble over something magical, and the journey would become far greater than they could ever have expected.

I quickly learned to spot this kind of book, and when one pitched up I’d start reading with one eye already anticipating the moment at which the magic would begin. As Tolly crossed the floodwaters on the way to Green Knowe or sickly Mary arrived in England from India and explored the Secret Garden; when the Five Children arrived in the country and headed for the beach or unrolled a nursery carpet at home, or when Lucy and Jamie followed Mr Blunden into the countryside – on every occasion I knew that magic was just round the corner.

A journey to the country was frequently a starting point, in fact – a concept I could entirely understand as a young boy living in the high flats on an estate in the city. Of course the countryside was full of mysterious shenanigans and unexpected goings-on! That was obviously the kind of thing that happened there...

Only as an adult though did I find out how many of those books were successful enough to be made into television. Or thought worthy enough, perhaps – I never did know what special quality it was that meant one book was deemed good enough for a BBC serial whilst another book, equally good in my eyes, remained forever unadapted.

I now imagine the transition from page to screen as though the process itself were in a movie, like those wonderful bits in the Disney Winnie the Pooh film where the words on the page fall off in the flood. The images created in my head by the text gradually fade and merge with those on the television, until the one has replaced the other entirely and where once I had been lost in a welter of words now I find myself mesmerised by those characters come alive on the screen.

And there are so many of them! So many classic serials on radio and TV, so many half forgotten books from my younger days which Amazon and the internet have brought back to mind and which the postman has dropped through the letterbox. And at the same time dvd companies seem to be releasing everything I could possibly want to watch. News about dramatisations I never even knew existed seem to appear at fairly regular intervals in newletters and adverts, falling into my Inbox with a satisfying thud.

Moondial, The Phoenix and the Carpet, Red Shift, Children of Green Knowe, The Snow Spider...the list is endless and brilliant and reminds me of being young and having enough of a cold to stay off school but not enough to want to waste time sleeping...sitting on the settee under a thick golden quilt with a lion embroidered in one corner, eating Rich Tea with margarine on and reading, reading, reading...

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Dads Army - the Making of a Classic Televison Series - Bill Pertwee (2009)

I read a lot of this kind of book. Reference books linked to some popular, long running television show or other, full of glossy pictures, large pull quotes, an episode guide and the re-telling of a set of anecdotes already familiar to most fans.

It's an illness of sorts, I think: the irresistible need to buy anything linked to your favourite tv series. Pages full of lists of episode names, complete with actors and directors; chapters crammed full of biographical sketches of the stars, grainy photos taken on location and little info boxes with effusive quotes from members of the cast; whole sections jam packed with tiny print, where even bigger fans than me have figured out the names of every extra, every setting, every date and carefully placed them in a book for me to pore over in semi-autistic wonder.

Interestingly, it's a phenomenon mainly linked to cancelled or simply moribund programmes, not those in current production. Doctor Who, for example, now seems to have a new reference book out every hour and a half, but at least there's scope for new information in each of these, and a potential reason for every new huge, chunky hardback tome.

(It was different back in the day, of course. When I was 12 or 13 I saved every scrap of written information about Doctor Who, from a cutting from the 'Daily Record' of a strangely bearded Colin Baker apparently balancing Bonnie Langford dressed as Peter Pan on his hand, to shiny silver chocolate lolly wrappers modelled on Cyberheads. Peter Haining was my hero as he produced not one but two coffee table Who books, which I read over and over again, until the pages fell out the middle.)

But back to Dad's Army, and Bill 'Warden Hodges' Pertwee's guide to that show.

There's not really a lot to say, if I'm being honest. Which is not to say that it's not worth reading and good value for money. It is. It's just that on the one hand there are other, more detailed books for the anorak wearing fan, and on the other I'm not convinced there's really a market for a Dads Army book aimed at the casual viewer which isn't just a very straight-forward guide to the television show.

What it is, though, is a solid, well packaged book which more than adequately fills its remit of being a guide to the making of Dads Army.

Helping it stand out from some other books in this respect are quite detailed sections on the stage show, a 'What Did They Do Next?' section, and episode guides to both the radio version of the main series and the radio only sequel It Sticks Out Half a Mile which, so far as I'm aware, are not otherwise readily available.

The fact that a star of the show is also the author also helps, obviously, by providing a value added touch than even the likes of Messrs McCann and Webber can't manage. Interviews and reminisces with the author participating can't help but add a certain degree of extra interest which would otherwise be lacking, and Pertwee makes the most of every such opportunity.

Given it only came out last year, there are some very slightly inaccurate moments, however - all of It Sticks out is now known to exist, rather than the single episode claimed in this book, and while not strictly linked to Dads Army I would have liked to see a guide to radio series Parsley Sidings, which starred both Ian Lavender and Arthur Lowe and guest starred Bill Pertwee, Liz Fraser and Graham Stark.

But neither of these is a major issue and it could easily be argued that Parsley Sidings is not really linked to Dads Army, so probably best to consider those just me trying to be balanced (aka being churlish!).

Not perhaps a must-have book, even for a fan of the tv series then, but it does offer enough not available elsewhere (especially at a tenner) to be worth picking up should be interested in the show and come across it on Waterstones' shelves.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Three Great BF Audios (as stated half a decade ago)

[Three positive Big Finish reviews that I just rescued from the Jade Pagoda Audio archives of 2005 and post here with very minor tweaks because I've been too busy tonight to write anything new]

Spare Parts - Marc Platt

Spare Parts
has, quite justifiably I think, been held up by fans of Big Finish as a prime example of how good the audio format can be. Written by Marc Platt , one of Who's biggest names/mythmakers, and featuring the origins of the Cybermen, it's an obvious one to claim as a highpoint in the early BF range.

The writing itself is first-rate; Platt has a good ear for dialogue and - unlike some BF plays - the various characters can easily be told from one another due to the things they say and the way they say them, rather than because everyone uses everyone else's names every time they speak (nothing worse than the 'So what do you think Doctor?'. 'Well Dravid I think that..', 'Oh look here comes Jonquar' style of writing). Additionally, there is an emotional depth to some scenes which is both unexpected and welcome (and, to be frank, not often greatly in evidence in the original series). The scene where a newly converted Cyberman attempts to go back home to her family, for instance, is genuinely moving in a a way that the TV series very rarely managed.

The acting too is excellent throughout - Davison turns in his best audio performance; Sarah Sutton is perfectly competent and the supporting cast fill their roles with aplomb (Pamela Binns as Sisterman Constant is particularly effective). The sound quality is also good - again unlike some of the earlier BF output, everyone can be heard clearly - a particular pleasure especially when the cybermen talk in their sing-song Tenth Planet voices. The only downside in this respect is the voice of the Cyber-Planner which can be quite hard to understand at times.

With all this praise, I best think of someting negative to say about Spare Parts or lose my well-earned reputation as a curmedgeon. Let's see.

The final twist in the plot - that the Mondasians use the 5th Doctor as a template for the new Cyber race - is merely clever, rather than good. In fact, this kind of thing - attempting to tie two apparently unrelated elements of an oeuvre into one another - has always seemed to me to be one of the signs of the death-knell of a series.

In sf book terms i's Isaac Asimov's last few sad novels, where - in the space of over a thousand pages per book - he tried to shoehorn his three main storylines (the Foundation; the Empire and the Robot storie) into one universe, all interlinked and interconnected. The result is a cluttered, strained and - most importantly - unnecessary mess. Just as Asimov's stories stand up fine by themselves, so there is no need to make the Doctor any more linked to the Cybermen than as their implacable foe. It simply smacks of fanwank at its most damaging - far more so in fact than Gary Russell's less well written and more often lambasted efforts - to make him have an organic link to them (and - on another level entirely - that's ignoring the in fiction 'fact' that future Doctors appear to have forgotten this link during Killing Ground, Attack of the Cybermen and Silver Nemesis - you would think he'd have mentioned it at some point).

Given that Spare Parts was the 34th release from Big Finish and had been followed by some very continuity heavy audios, maybe this last is another reason to be glad that a new television series arrived, before Doctor Who disappeared, cybersnake-like, up its own behind.

Spare Parts can be ordered here.

Davros - Lance Parkin

I stuck this audio in the car cd player with a huge raft of expectation, given that I had adored Lance Parkin's nove, The Infinity Doctors and thought Terry Malloy the best Davros.

In the main I wasn't disappointed - Malloy is immense and gives one of the finest performances of any type in Who history. Rather than the cliche ridden meglomaniac of, say, Remembrance, this is a well rounded character who for a fair length of time does seem genuine in his desire to change but who, even when he fails andreverts to type, never comes across as merely a ranting voice.

That part of this high quality is down to the excellence of the writing is undeniable - Davros' extended speech describing the torture of his 90 years floating alone in space, only for it to be revealed that all of the terror, fear and horror took place in merely the first second of his imprisonment is, perhaps, not terribly original, but it is commendably well written (and played). Similarly the flashback scenes set on Skaro, with Davros falling in love, being asked to commit suicide, or visiting the woman he has betrayed as she awaits execution are all very believable and slot into the main body of the narrative seamlessly.

As an added bonus, there's a sly dig at David Irving, the Hitler apologist historian, in the character of Lorraine Baines who has written several popular, but ill-informed books on Davros and who Parkin paints as a deluded fool (even her name as first presented - LRS Baines - is an anagram of 'brainless') whose eyes are only slowly opened to Davros' real nature and who pays the price in terms of arrest at the end of the play.

Which brings us, rather neatly to the big let-down of the audio, which as with Spare Parts is the ending. I once pitched a pretty rubbish outline to Big Finish where the TARDIS kicks the Doctor out for, amongst other things, always allowing people to suffer in his place. Sadly, Parkin uses this most cliched of Who cliches to reach a satisfying conclusion - Kim, the underacted computer bod, kills herself so that the Doctor can, without guilt, crash the ship she and Davros are on and so prevent him unleashing his dastardly program on an unsuspecting galaxy.

Far too often in Who this is the solution to a problem - first, the baddie kidnaps an innocent bystander and - by threatening to kill the bystander - is allowed to escape by the Doctor. The bystander then either sacrifices him or herself or is otherwise killed by accident and thus the Doctor is released to do what needs to be done without besmirching his delicate conscience. It even happens in the new golden age, in episodes like Tooth and Claw.

Using this plot device here simply serves to give the author an easy solution to a seemingly insoluble problem. It would have been far more satisfactory to have the initial solution - that the Doctor is able to control Davros' ship whilst it remains in the planetary atmosphere - serve as the actual solution. That the Doctor then states categorically, and with no evidence at all, that Davros survived the crash (in spite of what appears to be a panic-ridden scream of terror from Davros seconds before the explosion) merely adds a second Who cliche to the first, that of the mega villain surviving in spite of all evidence to the

Project: Lazarus - Cav Scott and Mark Wright

And finally, a genuine 100% pleasure.

What Project: Lazarus actually made all too clear is exactly what was wrong with other BF audios from the same time. Lazarus is populated with actual real characters, created by the authors and built up into believable people, about whom we, the listeners, genuinely care (or not, as the case may be). Something like Master, which came out at the same time, has no genuine characters in it at all, merely a series of generic stereotypes - the man with the mysterious past; the blustering, rational policeman; the middle-class, philanthropist wife (plus Death, of course, but I'm sorry - much as fans of the NAs claim Death as a serious character in Who, every time he/she is mentioned I think of Terry Pratchett and his Death seated on the faithful horse, Binky). And it's very hard to become emotionally involved in the fate of such cardboard cut-outs.

In part one of Lazarus, however, the death of Carrie is genuinely moving - for once, the sacrifice of a character to allow the Doctor to escape is an emotionally involving one and, even better, the reaction of Evelyn is absolutely spot on (roaring and crying, and berating the Doctor for the fact he seems perfectly able to dismiss the death of innocents as a fact of life and quickly move on). This is adult writing, with actual consequences for implicated individuals. The discovery in part one that Evelyn has a serious heart condition has been derided elsewhere, IIRC, but I thought it was a reasonable and intelligent development, further re-inforced in part two by Sylvester McCoy's refusal to discuss Evelyn and his line that Evelyn never forgave the Sixth Doctor for allowing Carrie to die. Even the chief bad guy, Nimrod, is neither a blustering madman nor a raving sadist, but is a three dimensional character, working initially to right the wrongs of his past, but in time suborned by the task itself until he sees himself as first, an avenging angel then as the head of a shadowy group prepared to use the powers of the vampires he created to further the goals of King and Country (even when the King is long gone).

And that's just the first part of the story.

The second disc of Lazarus demonstrates another flaw in recent BF audios - writers seem to feel that there is a need for a twist, even when there isn't one to be had. I blame M. Night Shyamalan myself - after The Sixth Sense everyone seemed to think that a clever twist was a prerequisite for good plotting.

But it's not. The twist in Spare Parts was merely smart-arsed and took the shine off of an otherwise brilliant story, whilst those in Master were ridiculous - both enormously obvious and completely uneccessary. Spare Parts had no need of a shock value ending in any case - it was already brilliantly written and filled with incident and all the inclusion of the 'Doctor as prototype for the Cybermen' finale did was distract the listener from the quality writing which preceded it.

The various twists and turns in Lazarus, on the other hand, are integral to the storyline and at no point feel forced or included for shock value. The discoveries that first, the Sixth Doctor is a clone; then that there are dozens of other clones of him slowly dying in the room where Carrie was killed; and finally that the clone of the Sixth Doctor has only been alive for days, rather than the 3 years he believed are not always wholly unexpected, but they all flow without problem into the thread of the story and beautifully progress the idea of the clone's emotional growth until at the end he has become indistinguishable morally and spiritually from the Sixth Doctor.

All in all, Lazarus has jumped to become my favourite of all the BF audios - so much so that I can even forgive the writers for their (I think tongue in cheek) reference to Zagreus at the start of Twilight...

Project: Lazarus can be bought here.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Revenge of the Cybermen (1975)

I can't deny that I tend to be at the front of any crowd of irate forty something fanboys queuing up to jump up and down on the talents of Russell T Davies. It would, in fact, be the biggest lie since Nick Clegg claimed he always said he'd work with the Tories to deny that I think virtually everything Davies has done with Doctor Who has been entirely to its detriment. I'm sure he's a lovely guy, kind to animals and friend of children everywhere, but I find his writing saccharine, his plotting non-existent to the point of contempt and his characterisation as shallow and unappetising as a puddle of spilt beer. More than all of that though, I find his many little 'innovations' make my skin crawl and leave me irritated and annoyed.

The reliance on the sonic screwdriver/gun and its unfailing ability to open any door except when it can't; the way that psychic paper gets the Doctor into any building except when it doesn't; the adoration the Doctor has for humanity except when he loathes it - even the squabbling companions and their soap opera dull lives, the early painful slapstick, Davies' belief that a mysterious or hard to pronounce title/name/law is somehow more science fiction than space ships - and the introduction of the pointless and unimaginative cliff hanger.

Every one of those has, at one point or another, had me frothing at the mouth like a mentalist.

And yet...

I've been watching the brilliant Revenge of the Cybermen, one part of the greatest run of stories in the history of Doctor Who (from Ark in Space to Terror of the Zygons, inclusive, for those interested) and if you ask me it's the closest thing to proto-RTD Who we see in the show prior to the King of Wales himself turning up in 2005.

Time for a spoddy checklist...

1. Baker employs the the Sonic Screwdriver in a pretty gun-like manner, using it to to cut out a metal lock and to blast cybermats, like a scene from a BBC Dr Who on-line game. Worth noticing the amount of early-RTD style slapstick round this same door, too.

2. Harry and Sarah fill the Mickey and Rose roles thirty years early, doing all sorts of action stuff in the gaps between bickering like fond lovers (odd nobody has ever written a Past Doctor novel with that possibility as its basis, now I think about it).

3. Baker pre-empts Eccleston and Tennant's happy abuse of Mickey as he shouts 'Harry Sullivan is an imbecile' at one point, while his threat to infect Kellman with the cyber plague has a degree of sheer menace and apparent willingness to inflict pain not seen again until Eccleston with the Dalek in 2005.

4. Has there been a more RTD cliffhanger in old school Doctor Who than that between episodes one and two? The Doctor is trapped in a room filling with gas, apparently doomed to a slow, lingering death.

So he opens the door.

A more Davies' style cliffhanger it's hard to imagine...

And finally five - the 'Armageddon Convention'? Why not the 'Shadow Proclamation' instead?

Obviously I'm exaggerating for effect. In two hours of any Doctor Who story, there are bound to be a little things I could point to and claim a 21st century sensibility for, but that doesn't mean that those elements aren't there in Revenge.

But it's also more than that.

There is a bit of slapstick when the Doctor opens the first metal door, but that's all - it's not a five minute scene of Plastic Mickey acting like the robot Santa in Santa Clause 2.

The Doctor does zap a cybermat with his sonic screwdriver, but only one and not a whole host of Cybermen with one John McClane-esque shot.

The Doctor does call his male companion an idiot a couple of times and pretty obviously prefers Sarah, but he doesn't feel the need to balance that out with a ten minute speech about just how great everybody is.

The cliffhanger is still rubbish, though.

Other bits which stick in my mind...

'Fragmentise? I suppose we can't expect decent English from a machine' - a line which, in its very mundanity, gives Revenge a more genuinely futuristic feel than any number of Nightmare Childs and Jagrefesses

Some great use of one screen overlaid over another prop to give the appearance of a futuristic surveillance system.

The cybermats are rubbish, in contrast - nowhere near as effective as those seen in Tomb of the Cybermen, a fact which is most plainly made when one slithers out from under the body of a dead crewman. It should have been creepy and horrible, like some silver insect burrowing through dead flesh, instead it's faintly comical (especially if you spot the fact that every other 'corpse' is in fact a dummy).

And - most importantly of all - if the Vogans are hiding from the Cybermen, why don't all their guns fire gold?

Monday, 3 January 2011

Pre-Code Hollywood: Torch Singer (1933)

It's an odd sort of film, this.

For one thing, reviews on the internet call it a soapy comedy, even though there are only a few jokes and the story is about a woman left alone and pregnant by a wealthy blueblood; a woman who can't get a job, who gets evicted from her apartment and then gives up her baby for adoption, before finally becoming what one character describes as 'the most notorious torch singer in town'. Will Hay it ain't.

For another, the story the film is based on is called 'Mike', the name of the blueblood father - a character who doesn't appear until the final quarter of the movie and even when he does he says and does almost nothing.

For a third, there seems to be a chunk of the movie missing, even though, in fact, there isn't. Finally, a one year old baby gets star billing for reasons which utterly elude me. Like I said, it's an odd sort of film all round.

But a great little movie, nonethless.

It has the wonderful Claudette Colbert in it for a start. Made only a year before scooping the Best Actress Oscar for her comic role in It Happened One Night and a couple before her nomination for the same award for Private Worlds, this film shows Colbert at her magnificent best, equally adeptly dealing with the dramatic and the comic elements in the story. Really, if you've never seen a Claudette Colbert movie, you should watch this one just to stare at cinema's most expressive eyes - she can do more with one frown than most actresses in the early 30s could do with their entire body - and one of the movie's great sexy voices. Probably the best scene in the film features Colbert in the role of Aunt Jenny, a radio presenter for small children (a position she combines with that of the most notorious torch singer in town) saying 'naughty boys have often tried to tease your Aunt Jenny - sometimes they've teased her until she had to give in', a line which would send shivers down the spine of all but a corpse.

The rest of the cast are basically functional at best. Errant rich kid Mike is played perfectly adequately if two dimensionally by David Manners (and to be fair there's not a lot of meat on the bones of the character). I can't help thinking, however, that in the hands of a Jimmy Stewart something more could have been made of his obvious selfishness and occasional harshness than Manners manages ('Please stop acting' he tells her when he comes back and then blames her for becoming hard and cold. 'Like glass', she counters, 'and only diamonds can cut glass so come back with some').

The rest of the cast are much of a muchness, though it's worth highlighting the absolutely gorgeous Mildred Washington, in the role of Colbert's black maid.

To return to the odd nature of the movie, it does have some comedic sections. There are sundry excellent one liners throughout and this exchange between lily white Colbert and a five year old black girl Sally, the same age and with the same name as Colbert's lost daughter is beautfully done:

Colbert: "I used to have a little girl named Sally'
Little Girl: "Was she black like me, Aunt Sally?'
Colbert: "Darling, it was so long ago I can't remember.'

The fact that the writers are willing to make even a small amount of humour from the plight of an unmarried mother does highlight the fact that, as a film from 1933, this is a pre-code movie (the print I watched is from the highly recommended Universal Pre Code Hollywood box set).

The film opens with Colbert and another unwed mother giving birth in a charity hospital run by nuns, but there's no suggestion from anyone that their state is in any way a sin or a subject of opprobium. Instead, the nuns are sympathetically drawn, her fellow unwed mother Dora supports her while she is able, a doctor wonders aloud where the fathers are when they're needed and when Colbert gives away her daughter, no-one blames her for doing what she must. Instead, all the main barbs are aimed at the wealthy - Colbert's rich, trendy pals run her down the second she asks them to leave her flat because she's tired and upset; Mike's rich, patrician aunt refuses to help Colbert with some money to prevent her nephew's only son being placed in the adoption system; and the wife of a wealthy (and admittedly sympathetic) businessman never misses a chance to insult her, all but accusing her of being a whore, now that she's - horror of horrors - a torch singer.

Which brings up the issue of the missing section of the movie. There is no missing section obviously - it's a standard 70 minutes long and always was - but there's a massive and unexplained jump between Colbert's first attempted audition without her daughter, in which a male promoter tells her that "a woman must suffer a lot to sing a little" (she replies that she'll be back in year but 'in the meantime watch me suffer') and the very next scene in which she's a successful torch singer and signs up with the same promoter, presumably having suffered plenty in the fade out in between. It's a clumsy bit of 'tell not show' which jars in a movie otherwise very neatly directed (for instance, there's a lovely brief scene just after she signs up to be a big star in which all you see are Colbert's feet walking in new shoes, with plasters on both her heels, suffering for her new found prominence).

Perhaps the oddest thing in the movie though is the fact that the name Baby Le Roy appears on the card announcing prominent cast members at the beginning of the movie. I assumed that was the name of one of the flapper types who befriend Colbert after she makes it big - but it turns out to be the name of the one year old kid used as Colbert's daughter. Baby - real name Ronald - obviously became something of a minor child star, appearing in a couple of WC Fields movies and alongside Maurice Chavalier in 'A Bedtime Story', but enough to make the titles aged 9 months?

Like I said, odd.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Hornets Nest, written by Paul Magrs and starring Tom Baker (2009)

My friend Jim has the happy knack of often coming up with just the phrase perfectly to encompass all that's best about one creative endeaviour or other, and he's seldom been more on the ball than in describing this first series of BBC Tom Baker Dr Who audios as 'macabre joie de vivre'.

Appearing in the autumn and early winter of the year, the five parts of Hornets Nest felt like a second annual season of Doctor Who, following the brash and colourful television series like a cleverer and more odd elder brother. Redolent of winter evenings, drinking mulled wine by an open fire, the curtains closed and an old friend come to visit, Paul Magrs rather brilliantly managed to provide both comfort and innovation in a single, beautifully crafted package.

From the very first, I was happily dragged into the latest World of the Doctor.

Nest Cottage feels like a natural extension from the house that Pertwee built in Magrs' earlier Dr Who book, Verdigris. And of course the Doctor would have a big old dog about the place, and a housekeeper to cook his meals and argue with him. Of course he'd have old friends round for adventures now and then (but not all the time!) and of course he'd stay up all night telling stories which, in the end, become one with present reality, so that everybody is in The Most Terrible Danger!

The fact that not all of this is in place at the start of the series makes the voyage of discovery all the finer - and the manner in which that voyage takes in one deliciously creepy (macabre, even) location after another, back into the watery depths of time, is finer still.

For me - and many more like me - this is the real Sound of the Seventies; the wheezing groan of the TARDIS, the fourth Doctor barking orders at Mike Yates and anyone else who gets in his way - and the sinister rustling noise of an alien entity sliding surreptitiously into an unsuspecting but compliant human body.

Beautiful and a little bit scary - like all the best Wintery things...