The Crichton Factor

The science fiction of Michael Crichton

First published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2016.

The Admirable Crichton

During a forty year career, the fertile mind of Michael Crichton created numerous stories featuring deadly plagues, rebellious robots and resurgent dinosaurs. With a new TV version of Crichton’s Westworld striding boldly towards us this October, Geeky Monkey takes a look at the work of a man who left a huge indelible footprint on the history of science fiction…

WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM

In November 2008, with the news dominated by the election of Barack Obama, another news story could easily have slipped by unnoticed: Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton had died aged just 66.

As the man behind one of the biggest cinematic hits ever, Michael Crichton was a towering figure in every sense (he was 6ft 9). But he had a somewhat mixed record as both an author and of director of science fiction.

Michael Crichton wrote books, directed films based on his own books, directed films based on other people’s books, directed films not based on his or anyone else’s books and saw his own books adapted by other directors. Not all of the novels or directorial projects are of the type which piques Geeky Monkey’s interest: for example, neither Disclosure or Rising Sun fit into the sci-fi or fantasy bracket and so don’t expect them to be discussed much here. But whether good or bad, Crichton’s medical experience was always evident. Whether it was a version of one of his own books or one of his own original screenplays, it was as if Michael Crichton had injected himself into every frame.

The Andromeda Strain

Book (1969). Filmed: 1971, TV version: 2008

The danger that humanity may be threatened by an unstoppable outbreak of an incurable and fast spreading disease is sadly one of the more plausible apocalyptic scenarios. Crichton tackles this head on in his breakthrough novel, which centres on the aftermath of a space satellite’s return to Earth. It soon emerges that everyone in the surrounding Arizona area where the satellite has crashed down is dead, some of them having died in bizarre mysterious ways. A dispassionate scientific analysis begins: was the satellite harbouring a deadly microorganism?

Published when Crichton was still embarking on a medical career in his twenties (he apparently once overheard two senior doctors discussing his own book), The Andromeda Stain made Crichton a star. It achieves the difficult feat of being both scientifically credible and a compelling enjoyable read.

And, happily, the film wasn’t bad either. Directed by Robert Wise (the man behind the not very similar Sound of Music although he would later do the first Star Trek film), The Andromeda Strain was largely faithfully brought to the screen and was notable for its early use of special effects from 2001: A Space Odyssey wizard Douglas Trumbull. A modest box office hit, it is still very watchable and  became an influence on everything from Outbreak (1995) to Contagion (2011) the last of which saw an apocalyptic plague start after Gwyneth Paltrow shook hands with a chef who hadn’t washed his hands after some bats pooed on the food he was about to serve.

Sadly, a “reimagining” of the book staring Benjamin Bratt worked less well as a TV mini-series in 2008. A very loose adaptation indeed and very unmemorable: The Amnesia Strain might have been a better title.

The Terminal Man

Book: 1969. Film: 1974

The second Crichton sci-fi book to be adapted drew direct inspiration from his medical career:

“I saw a patient in a hospital who was being treated with electrodes implanted in the brain, hooked up to a monitoring computer,” Crichton later wrote.  “I thought this treatment was horrific and I was amazed that the research seemed to be going forward with no public discussion or even knowledge. I decided to write a novel to make such procedures better known.”

The experience (of a treatment which is now no longer carried out) provided the basis for The Terminal Man. The novel centres on one Harry Benson who undergoes a futuristic version of electronic brain implantation similar to that witnessed by Crichton to cure him of the epileptic seizures he has begun to experience since suffering injuries in a car accident. Benson soon becomes incredibly violent as a result. Critically well received as a book, despite receiving some criticism for linking epilepsy to violence, the film which starred George Segal is generally less well liked. Roy Pickard has argued (in the book Science Fiction At The Movies) that it is in some ways superior to anything in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Despite this, Crichton was aggrieved that he lost his role as director to Mike Hodges, the man who would later direct Flash Gordon (1980). Crichton later admitted that he liked The Terminal Man less than any other books.

Westworld

Filmed: 1973

Sequel: Futureworld (1976)

TV series: Beyond Westworld (1980)

HBO TV series due: 2016

Imagine a holiday in which you can sample the thrill of being in ancient Rome, medieval England or the Wild West. Peopled by robots, Delos, the holiday resort in Westworld, offers all of these things and more. Our heroes (played by Josh Brolin and Richard Benjamin) are drawn to the wild west sector where an android gunslinger played by Yul Brynner (wearing the same outfit he had earlier worn in the western, The Magnificent Seven) is obligingly shot down to please the tourists every day.

But then the robots start going wrong. Previously obliging medieval serving wenches become uppity and slap their clients (“My Lord forgets himself!”) while the robots all over the three worlds suddenly go into revolt, Brynner’s gunfighter becoming especially lethal…

Hands up if you jumped to Westworld in this feature straight away? If you did, we certainly don’t blame you. Westworld is Crichton’s most fun pre-Jurassic Park creation. It was the first film ever to use CGI (on a limited scale). It was also the first to demonstrate Crichton’s talent for imagining futuristic theme parks and then have them go horribly wrong.

Indeed, there is an element of the Jurassic Park issue here – scientists have used technology which they don’t really understand leading to an ultimately deadly environment. As one Delos scientist explains: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”

Crichton originally conceived Westworld as a novel but ended up writing it as a screenplay and directing it as a film where it soon enjoyed success. Crichton had nothing to do with the 1976 sequel Futureworld starring Peter Fonda which lazily attempted to recreate the formula of the original on a larger scale even featuring Brynner’s gunfighter only in a rather pointless dream sequence. The 1980 TV series Beyond Westworld was a flop too. Featuring a plot to use the androids of Delos to take over the world, the show was canned after only three out of five episodes had been aired.

The new HBO series Westworld due out later this year looks much more promising, however, not only in terms of cast  (it features the distinguished likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright) but in terms of depth.

Judging by the trailer, the new series not only promises to explore the three worlds of Delos in greater detail but promises to be a dark intelligent affair featuring Blade Runner style mediations on the nature of existence. If the series lives up to the promise of the trailer, it seems likely Crichton himself would have approved.

Congo

Book: 1980

Filmed: 1995

Apes have a difficult legacy on film. For every King Kong (1933), there’s a King Kong (1976). For every Planet of the Apes (1968), there’s a Planet of the Apes (2001).

Congo sadly slips into the “awful” category thanks largely to some terrible acting performances from Tim Curry and Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson, but also because, in common with the aforementioned Dino de Laurentiis King Kong remake and, indeed, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), it is rendered ridiculous by the use of silly looking gorilla costumes. This was just about acceptable when Planet of the Apes came out in 1968 but was already pushing it a vit, in the 70s and 80s when King Kong and Greystoke used them. By 1995, soon after the release of Crichton’s own CGI-filled Jurassic Park, it looked completely absurd.

Congo, is in truth, not one of Crichton’s better books anyway. After a series of mysterious deaths occurs in the Congo, an expedition is sent out which discovers a dangerous race of hyper-intelligent human-gorilla hybrids. Although definitely science fiction, Crichton attempted to inject some of the feel of the 19th century adventure story like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (a name Crichton would consciously poach later).

Crichton actually sold the film rights in 1979 before completing the book and was optimistic about Sean Connery being cast. But the film didn’t end up being made until Crichton’s post-Jurassic boom period and Connery didn’t appear.

CGI was briefly considered but ruled out. But in truth gorilla suits are only part of the problem with Frank Marshall’s frequently ridiculous film. It would have been all over the place anyway, good special effects or not.

But against all odds, Congo didn’t flop. It was a solid commercial hit.

Looker

Filmed: 1981

Perhaps the least remembered of any of Crichton’s film, some would argue that as a critical and commercial flop, Looker is best skipped over quickly. The film sees Albert Finney play a plastic surgeon who becomes suspicious after a series of already beautiful models approach him seeking minor and indeed apparently imperceptible physical alterations. He becomes even more intrigued after the models start being murdered and he finds himself under suspicion of killing them. What is going on and how are the sinister Digital Matrix research firm involved?

Though not a success, Looker deserves to be remembered for one reason at least: the film featured the first ever CGI human character. Filmsite.org’s Film Milestones in Visual and Special Effects explains:

“The visual effects in Michael Crichton’s high-tech science-fiction thriller featured the first CGI human character, model Cindy (Susan Dey of The Partridge Family fame).  Her digitization was visualized by a computer-generated simulation of her body being scanned – notably the first use of shaded 3D CGI in a feature film. Polygonal models obtained by digitizing a human body were used to render the effects.”

Not bad for 1981.

Runaway

Filmed: 1984

It is a well-known fact that actor Tom Selleck was forced to turn down the role of Indiana Jones due to his contractual obligations to the hit TV series Magnum P.I. Selleck’s disappointment at what might have been is only to understandable and obvious:  a number of subsequent films saw Selleck apparently trying to emulate Harrison Ford in Indy-type roles. Runaway, directed and written by Crichton, is quite different, however. On paper at least, Selleck seems to be emulating Ford in another film entirely: Blade Runner.

Selleck plays Sgt. Jack R. Ramsey, a police officer in a near future environment in which household robots have become commonplace. Aided by his enthusiastic young partner (played by Cynthia Rhodes), Ramsay is part of the “Runaways Unit” dealing with robots who have malfunctioned, known as “runaways”. Most of his work is quite mundane, until one day he finds himself investigating something that should be impossible: a robot who has broken his programming so dramatically that he has committed murder, having wiped out a whole family. What would Brian from Confuse.com say? It’s certainly enough to make Metal Mickey turn in his grave.

Runaway certainly isn’t terrible and perhaps the Blade Runner similarities are only superficial. In one respect, it is like Blade Runner, however: it flopped. And unlike Blade Runner, its reputation has not soared in the years since.

Sphere

Book: 1987

Filmed: 1998

“An adventure 65 million years in the making” would be the tagline for the film of Crichton’s biggest success Jurassic Park. And though none of Crichton’s works actually took that long to produce (obviously), many did have a long gestation period. Crichton began writing Sphere back when he was in his twenties, seeing it as a potential companion piece to The Andromeda Strain. As it turned out, he didn’t finish it until the late 80s, having basically got stuck, the film appearing a full decade after that.

Sphere begins from an intriguing premise with the discovery of a mysterious craft bobbing along at the bottom of the beautiful briny sea. A mystery begins: is the craft from Earth? Is it an alien ship from space? Or could it even have been sent back in time from hundreds of years in the future?

The book of Sphere was actually decent and with veteran director Barry Levinson (best known for Rainman) at the helm and a cast led by Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson (the last actor by then far more famous than he had been when he appeared in a supporting role in Jurassic Park five years before) the movie version really should have been the same.

Sadly, it was not to be: Sphere was fatally dull.

Rotten Tomatoes damned it thus: ”Sphere features an A-level cast working with B-grade material, with a story seen previously in superior science-fiction films.”

Sphere sank without trace to the bottom of the box office ocean.

Mid-life Crichton

As the 1980s neared their end, Crichton then in his late forties might have looked back on these years with some sense of disappointment. None of his books had been adapted into films during the decade, the three films he had directed himself during this period (Looker, Runaway and 1989’s non-science fiction Physical Evidence) were all failures and he would never direct any more films. Despite the novels Congo and Sphere, Crichton was still best known his 1970s work and he was clearly less successful than some younger emerging novelists like Stephen King and John Grisham .

But as a new decade dawned, Crichton’s life was about to change forever…

Jurassic Park

Book: 1990 Filmed: 1993

Jurassic Park: The Lost World

Book: 1995 Filmed: 1997

Steven Spielberg is famed for knowing what the public want before they even know it themselves. Whether it’s sharks, cute little aliens or heroic archaeologist cum adventurers, Spielberg has his fingers on the pulse of the film-going zeitgeist. He had known Michael Crichton since the seventies. When Crichton began talking about his latest unfinished novel about a theme park populated by resurrected dinosaurs, Spielberg was very interested. Recognising that CGI technology was at a point where it could bring Crichton’s vision brilliantly to life, he bought the rights.

The results almost speak for themselves.

As Gloria Hunniford famously put it, in Jurassic Park the special effects are so good “’you can’t tell where the fake dinosaurs end, and the real ones begin.” But the film is not just a special effects bonanza. Spielberg both took things away and added things to Crichton’s book and screenplay: a child being killed by a dinosaur early on was deemed too horrific, Attenborough’s creator Hammond is less sinister in the film than he was in the book, the famous shuddering glass of water in the first great tyrannosaurus rex scene is largely down to Spielberg’s masterful direction, not Crichton’s prose. But the book and the idea were Crichton’s and he deserved the millions he made from it.

Jurassic Park is the biggest grossing film of all time on its release worldwide and is currently the 21st on the list which is unadjusted for inflation, the only film which is over 20 years old to be in the current top 50. Jurassic World from 2015 is at number 4 (all these figures come courtesy of Box Office Mojo).

Or in other words, you have seen Jurassic Park, your dentist has seen Jurassic Park and anyone anywhere currently in your range of vision has seen Jurassic Park unless they are a baby, a dog or Audrey Hepburn in an advert on your TV.

Indeed, probably virtually everyone in your mobile phone address book has seen it. Don’t believe us? Call them now and check. Go on. We can wait.  We’ll still be here when you get back.

In 1994, Crichton achieved a first. Jurassic Park was number one at the box office, E. (which he had also created) was number one on US TV and Crichton’s novel Rising Sun (also made into a film soon after) was at the top spot in the book charts. Top of the book bestsellers, the TV ratings and the box office charts. No one has ever achieved this triple whammy  before or since. A very tall man anyway, Michael Crichton really did seem to stand astride the world like a colossus.

Little wonder he was soon under pressure to do a sequel. The Lost World Jurassic Park was Crichton’s first and only sequel and he made compromises: Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcolm returns, for example, despite being killed off in the first book (but having survived the film). In truth, the sequel was far from Crichton’s best book and is probably one of Spielberg’s worst films. But it was a huge box office hit and two more films have appeared since.

Michael Crichton wrote many books in his last years, some of which (although only one more sci-fi book) were filmed. But creatively, he never scaled the heights of the Jurassic Park again.

Timeline

Book: 1999

Filmed: 2003

A truly rubbish film, it seems a shame to end with Timeline, a silly adventure based on Crichton’s enjoyable sci-fi thriller about a group of modern day scientists traveling back in time to 14th century France to rescue their professor.

Crichton’s final years saw him produce more science fiction. Prey (2002) is a thriller dealing with the threat posed by the creation of artificial life and nanobot technology. The rights have been bought by 20th Century Fox although Prey has never yet been filmed. State of Fear (2004) centres on a plot to commit mass murder by a gang of eco-terrorists. By this point, Crichton, now in his sixties, had nailed his colours firmly to the mast of those who like President George W. Bush were in total denial about the existence of climate change. Many felt Crichton’s promotion of his own views on this subject rather marred the novel.

Next is er… Next(2006)  which centres on the genetic experimentation on animals. It is, incidentally, nothing whatsoever to do with the Nicholas Cage sci-fi film Next of 2007 which was in fact based on a Philip K. Dick story. His final unfinished sci-fi work Micro (published posthumously in 2011) meanwhile is being planned as a film by Dreamworks.

Nearly eight years after he died, Crichton’s legacy is undeniably mixed with some huge successes and some epic failures. Some films based on his books were terrible as were some of the films he directed himself and indeed some of his own book were quite bad.

But with the Westworld and Jurassic franchises flourishing to this day, Crichton’s contribution to science fiction is undeniable. He wrote science fiction in the truest sense, using his medical expertise to inform hugely entertaining stories. And when at his best as in The Andromeda Strain, Westworld or Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton could be very entertaining indeed.

Box out: Also by Michael Crichton…

Michael Crichton didn’t just write and direct science fiction. Here are just some of the other many strings to his bow…

The young doctor?: A Harvard Medical School graduate, Crichton spent years on clinical rotation in hospitals but never formally gained a licence to practice medicine, choosing to write instead. He came to believe many patients took too little responsibility for their own health.

Weird science: He was sceptical about man-made climate change or global warming. but was interested in aura viewing and clairvoyance.

Tall stories: He wrote some early books under the pen names Jeffery Hudson and John Lange (“lange” is the German word for “long”: Crichton, as mentioned, was very tall). Michael also wrote a book with his brother Douglas under the name “Michael Douglas” in 1970. By coincidence, the now famous actor Michael Douglas (who had still largely been unknown in 1970) would later star in Coma (1978), a medical thriller directed by Michael Crichton as well as Disclosure (1994), a controversial film based on Crichton’s bestselling novel.

Twister (1996): Crichton co-wrote the screenplay for the tornado-based drama starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. He was aided by his then wife Anne-Marie Martin (he married five times). The film was the second biggest grossing film of 1996 and certainly the biggest grossing film of that year which didn’t feature Will Smith repelling an alien invasion.

TV star: In 1994, Crichton created and produced the medical TV drama ER. He only wrote the first episode basing it on a script he’d first written in 1974. He effectively launched a show which would last until 2009.

Dr Who?: The name “Dr Ross” appears at least four times in Crichton’s writing. Most famous is Dr Doug Ross the role which made George Clooney’s name in ER. In Congo (1980), the main expedition to uncover the cause of the mysterious deaths is led by Dr Karen Ross (she is played by Laura Linney in the film). Both the book and film of The Terminal Man (1972/1974) feature Dr Janet Ross, Benson’s attractive psychiatrist (Joan Hackett).  In Zero Cool (1969), an early Crichton book (written as John Lange), Dr Peter Ross is a radiologist and the main character.

Other big non-sci-fi successes for Crichton were The Great Train Robbery (1975) filmed by Crichton himself as The First Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery  and Rising Sun (1992) and Disclosure (1994), both later made into films, the former also starring Connery.

The 13th Warrior (1999) starring Antonio Banderas is based on Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead (1976). Crichton himself took over the reins as director uncredited from onetime Die Hard director John McTiernan when the film ran into trouble. But he still could not stop it from becoming one of the biggest cinematic flops ever made.

CHRIS HALLAM

When the Tripods came to TV

First published: 2018

Chris Hallam examines an alien invasion saga with a difference…

It is now been over fifty years since the Tripods first strode boldly onto the British science fiction landscape.

Alien invasion stories were, of course, nothing new, even then. The difference was that in the Tripods’ case, the invasion was already over. Planet Earth was long defeated and seemingly totally in thrall to their new metallic masters: gigantic hemispheres supported by three gigantic legs. Creator John Christopher later admitted he’d “unconsciously stolen” the idea of the Tripods’ appearance from the Martian conquerors of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. He was being modest. There are definite similarities between the two. But there was rather more to the Tripods than that.

The first book to feature the metallic monsters, The White Mountains written by John Christopher (whose real name was Sam Youd) appeared in 1967. Two more books, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire soon followed. Then, in the mid-Eighties, the first two books were made into two BBC TV series. A final book, a prequel, When The Tripods Came appeared in 1988. Primarily aimed at a teenage audience, the Tripods had become a science fiction franchise in their own right.

The enemy within

At first it seems as if there is nothing wrong. Aside from a few ominous references to “Tripods” and people being “Capped,” the first few pages of the opening volume (The White Mountains) suggest the book is set at some point in England’s past, specifically Winchester, perhaps in or around the year 1800. Only gradually do we learn the truth. Early on, the young main characters are confused by an ancient sign: “Danger, 6,600 volts”. It means nothing to them, but to us, the meaning is only too clear. This is the future: perhaps a century or more from now. But it is a future where human development has been pushed back to pre-industrial levels. The main characters have never even heard of trains, cars or electricity. It is as if the industrial revolution never happened.

As in Orwell’s 1984, the populace has been fed a misleading portrait of the pre-invasion world. “We know it was the Black Age,” says one character. “There were too many people, and not enough food, so that people starved and fought each other and there were all kind of sicknesses…” It is not simply propaganda which is blighting the path of human development, however.

We do not have to wait long before we meet the source of the problem. The gigantic robotic Tripods stalk the Earth “Capping” humans in a special ceremony organised by the already Capped adults for their young as soon as they reach adolescence. The Caps are metal plates fused to the heads of the humans through which the conquered native population receive orders from the Tripod conquerors. The Capped are not zombies, not exactly. They still talk, eat, drink, do jobs, get married, farm and cook. But their minds are no longer truly their own.

As if this wasn’t chilling enough, we soon learn that as many as one in twenty Cappings fail: the Tripod’s messages are unable to reach the human brain properly, leaving the wearers in a state of perpetual confused delirium. The result is that a sizeable swathe of the populace is made up of the consequences of these malfunctions: sad wandering figures known as “Vagrants”.

It is from one such ‘Vagrant’ – in fact, a man pretending to be one, who goes by the name “Ozymandias”- that the book’s hero, Will Parker comes to realise the truth, only days before he is due to be Capped himself. Discouraged by the slavish Stepford Wife-like quality that befalls the personality of his friend Jack after his Capping (a process that involves being drawn into and briefly taken off by a Tripod), Will is determined to avoid such a fate. He flees and begins a perilous journey, ultimately joined by two colleagues: his cousin Henry and a tall, highly intelligent French boy known as “Beanpole”. They travel to the one region of the planet apparently free of Tripod influence: the white mountains of Switzerland.

Fifty years on, the book remains a compelling read. The Tripods themselves appear relatively infrequently, ensuring maximum impact when they do appear: sometimes as a distant but still unnerving presence lumbering across the horizon or occasionally looming up and lashing out, attacking ships or people apparently on a whim. There are even stories of the Tripods letting captured humans run free before hunting them down for sport. The book has some similarities to John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids in which another group of futuristic children escape their pre-industrial homesteads, albeit for very different reasons.

Origin of the species

But who or what exactly are the Tripods and where do they come from?

Ozymandias, the man who inspires Will’s journey, has a couple of ideas. “There are two stories about them,” he begins. “One is that they were machines made by men, which revolted against men and enslaved them…The other story is that they do not come from this world at all, but another.”

Both of these stories turn out to be partly true. The Tripods do come from outer space but the means by which they took power turns out to be through the man-made medium of television. Once in charge, they ensured humanity reverted to a pre-industrial level of technological development, perhaps to protect themselves from a sophisticated military assault or at the very least to prevent nasty rumours being spread about them on the internet.

Ozymandias also speculates that the Tripods may be just the vehicles for the alien controllers within. We learn more about this in the second novel, The City of Gold and Lead in which Will and another boy, Fritz adopt fake Caps and are able to gain access to one of the domed cities in which the Tripods’ hideous Masters live. Conditions are appalling for humans. The gravity levels are set at a much higher level than usual, to make the Masters feel at home but making it almost impossible for humans to move. Will also discovers that the Masters’ ultimate aim is to flood out the Earth’s oxygen with their own poisonous green air, rendering human survival impossible but ensuring the Masters can wander about as they please. A spaceship providing the means to do this is apparently only a few years away from reaching the Earth.

In the final book of the trilogy, The Pool of Fire, the battle to defeat the Tripods thus becomes very urgent indeed.

The trilogy ended. But with the Tripods having conquered the Earth by harnessing the power of TV, surely it made sense that in the real world, the Tripods should try and conquer the world of TV for themselves? In 1984 and 1985, this finally happened: the Tripods came to BBC1. Whether they may genuinely said to have conquered the medium remains to be seen.

A trilogy in two parts

The first series of The Tripods was broadcast in the popular BBC 1 Saturday afternoon teatime slot, across 13 weeks between September and December 1984. It had been a long struggle: producer Richard Bates had been trying to get the series on the box since the early 1970s.

It was a busy time for sci-fi and fantasy. The US extra-terrestrial series V had just been broadcast on ITV that summer and Ghostbusters was first shown in UK cinemas in December. On the British front, the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison had just regenerated into the Sixth, Colin Baker, Children’s ITV had just shown the terrifying John Wyndham adaptation, Chocky (also produced by The Tripods’ Richard Bates) and in November, the BBC launched its dark Christmas fantasy, The Box of Delights featuring the onetime Second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton.

The series opened with a caption stating it was the year 2089AD, followed by the appearance of a 19th century style horse and cart. What followed was a generally faithful translation of the book from page to screen. It’s always easy to mock old British TV sci-fi but The Tripods was a big deal at the time and had a reasonable budget. A 12-part series based on the second book appeared in the autumn of 1985.

There was a fair amount of publicity.  The series made the cover of the Radio Times and a computer game was produced for the ZX Spectrum. The three young main cast members, John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel appeared on Blue Peter and were interviewed by presenters Simon Groom and the late Michael Sundin, while Goldie the dog slept on the floor in front of them. The following year, Groom alongside Peter Duncan and Janet Ellis presented another feature, exploring the second series’ special effects. Janet Ellis described the City of Gold and Lead as “a real triumph of design and special effects” while Peter Duncan (who had played a small part in the 1980 film Flash Gordon) dressed in Will’s costume and was superimposed so as to appear in the City itself where he explained the concept of colour separation overlay. Simon Groom, meanwhile, reassured any nervous viewers that the Masters, the alien controllers of the Tripods were made of nothing more than plastic foam filled with bubbles, enhanced by camera and lighting effects. A similar item appeared on BBC Breakfast Time introduced by Debbie Greenwood. The Daily Express described it as “the most imaginative and compelling teatime adventure in years”.

Some scenes had been filmed at Saltcombe Castle, residence of the famously roguish Tory MP and diarist, Alan Clark. Clark’s diaries record he took a liking to “little Charlotte Long” the aristocratic young actress playing French love interest, Eloise, undeterred by the fact Long was a teenager while Clark, at this point, was married and in his fifties. Tragically, Long was killed in a car accident, aged just 18, while the first series was still being broadcast. Her character appeared only briefly in the second series where she was played by future Howard’s Way actress Cindy Shelley.

Not all the criticism of the series was favourable. The acting was variable in quality and things occasionally got boring. The show frequently got nine million viewers but was still often beaten by the popular quiz show Blockbusters which was broadcast at the same time on ITV. A common complaint was that for a show called The Tripods, the Tripods themselves appeared fairly infrequently. Creator John Christopher himself, meanwhile, was less keen on the heroes’ four-episode digression to a French farm. The farm visit had no equivalent in the actual book, featured no Tripods and was largely irrelevant to the story. Christopher did, however, generally enjoy the adaptation. He had not enjoyed an earlier 1970s film version of his apocalyptic novel Death of Grass (filmed as No Blade of Grass) watching it on TV for a short while but apparently going to bed during the first commercial break.

On an episode of Did You See…? hosted by the Ludovic Kennedy, the sci-fi author Brian Aldiss labelled the series “a rather a clumsy piece of engineering” and likened it to a Hovis bread commercial. “What I don’t like about it is that it’s a certain type of British science fiction which is looking backwards instead of forwards,” he said.

Other guests were more ignorant but no less keen. One, at least, liked the theme music, which to anyone listening today is heavily reminiscent of the theme to long running medical drama, Casualty. (Both were in fact written by the same man: Ken Freeman). The guests also seemed confused as to whether the series was supposed to be set in the still quite recent 1970s or medieval times. None were correct.

As it is, The Tripods will always remain tragically incomplete. Much to the eternal annoyance of fans everywhere and to the lifelong regret of producer, Richard Bates, the show was cancelled before a third series was ever made.

The TV trilogy remains forever unfinished.

Back to the future

The story was not quite over, however. In 1988, twenty-one years after the first book, John Christopher produced a prequel, When The Tripods Came which aimed to explain how the Tripods conquered the Earth in the first place. Set in the near future, the book opens with an early attempt at a physical Tripod attack on Earth which centres on Dartmoor. A dog is killed and the Tripods are subjected to a blast of classical music before being speedily dispatched by jet fighters. The surprise alien invasion attempt appears to have been a lamentable failure. “A Close Encounter of the Absurd Kind,” jokes the teacher of one of the boys almost caught up in the attack. “What sort of goons would dream up something so clumsy and inefficient as a means of getting around?”

A new animated TV show, “The Trippy Show” soon begins mocking the would-be invaders. And here the trouble begins. It soon develops a fanatical cult following. Some people seem unaffected, but for others it seems to have a dramatic impact on them. The main character is horrified when his teenaged sister flies into a hysterical rage when he accidentally fails to video tape the latest episode for her. Fans soon start fleeing their homes to form communes. The Daily Mail reports on “A Trippy Brainwash?” while the teacher quoted earlier begins acting oddly. “I saw you burn that evil newspaper,” he says to some affected pupils, “They had one in the Common-Room and I burned it too…hail the Tripod!” Soon social breakdown, chaos and mass Cappings ensue. Yes, the Caps have appeared for the first time.

The Tripods are back.

Quite aside from the heroic role played by the Daily Mail in proceedings, not all aspects of the book convince. It is never really fully explained how The Trippy Show gets made in the first place. Author John Christopher was well into his sixties by this point and there’s a bit of a dated 1960s feel about the Trippy phenomenon.

Nevertheless, it’s a gripping read. John Christopher died in 2012, aged 89. Disney bought the rights to the franchise in 1997.

Have we really seen the last of the Tripods? Only time will tell.

Full Metal Kubrick

First published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2016.

Regardless of whether he was making heist thrillers, anti-war dramas or historical epics, director Stanley Kubrick was always a force to be reckoned with. However, it was his move towards science fiction and horror in the sixties and seventies which brought out his true genius as director and saw the creation of four of his greatest films. But what was the price of Kubrick’s lifelong battle for perfection? Over the years, the director’s obsession with power and control brought him close to the brink of madness

WORDS: Chris Hallam

It’s easy to see why some people might think director Stanley Kubrick (1928-1999) was an obsessive, controlling character. It’s there in his work. As the journalist Lewis Jones has noted; “All his films have an intensely painstaking air, an overpowering feel of perfectionism. They are all hugely ambitious… and all his films are driven by some kind of fear – fear of war (Paths of Glory, Dr Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket), of crime (A Clockwork Orange), of computers (2001), of creative failure and madness (The Shining), or sex (Lolita, Eyes Wide Shut)”.

The image of Kubrick as an obsessive telephone-fixated recluse may be an unfair stereotype. It is, after all, perfectly possible to feature certain recurrent themes in your work without necessarily exhibiting them within your own personality. There is also something of a lazy media tendency to label any celebrity who doesn’t do regular interviews “a recluse”.

Between 1963 and 1980, effectively the middle period of his career, Kubrick, already an established director, thanks to the likes of The Killing, Paths of Glory and Lolita, embarked, intentionally or not, on an exciting new journey. With the notable exception of his period piece 1975’s Barry Lyndon, Kubrick departed from real world scenarios as the subject matter for his films. Dr. Strangelove occurs against the backdrop of imminent nuclear war. 2001 and A Clockwork Orange both depict very different versions of the near future, while The Shining is set in a world in which ghosts and the supernatural exist.

It was undeniably the most creative period of his entire career. But it was also the period during which Kubrick’s own behaviour reportedly grew most eccentric. As Kubrick’s subject matter increasingly moved further and further away from real world scenarios, did his own grip on reality start to loosen too?

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

In October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the world closer to nuclear war than ever before. To give just one example, on learning that the Soviet Union had deployed nuclear missiles on the island just 80 miles off Florida, the initial reaction of President Kennedy’s team was that the US should invade Cuba. The president’s brother Bobby talked them out of it fearing the US would come across looking like a bully. Thirty years later, it was revealed: officials on Cuba were under orders to launch a nuclear strike on the US if they had attempted to invade. That’s how close the world came to nuclear holocaust.

Clearly, then, an obvious topic for a film comedy.

Nor was Stanley Kubrick, the obvious choice to direct a comedy. Although well-established in the movie business by his thirties, Kubrick who had directed Spartacus (1960) and the controversial Lolita (among other things) was not associated with comedy at all. Indeed, despite directing Dr. Strangelove, rated in 2000 by the AFI as the third best US comedy film of all time, he still isn’t. Ask anyone to describe Kubrick in ten words: more likely than not, the words “funny” and “hilarious” will remain unused.

The film did not start out as a comedy. Kubrick was fond of adapting novels as the basis for his films, in fact, every single Kubrick film after 1955’s Killer’s Kiss was based on a book (in the case of 2001, the short story The Sentinel was expanded by its author Arthur C. Clarke during production). Dr. Strangelove Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, to give it its full title, was based on Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert released as Two Hours To Doom in the UK. The novel was quite different from the eventual film in that it was deadly serious, did not feature the character Dr. Strangelove at all and had a completely different ending. Nevertheless, the essential point that a US general goes mad and attempts to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the USSR, is the same as the film (neither were directly based on the Cuban missile crisis). Kubrick increasingly came to recognise the dark humour in the Cold War arms race and with the help of co-writer Terry Southern, turned it into a comedy.

He was, of course, immeasurably helped by the comedy genius of his friend, the actor Peter Sellers. Kubrick indulged Sellers somewhat and would often be rendered hysterical by Sellers’ ad-libbing on set.  Sellers’ role in Lolita had been massively expanded from a very small one indeed in Nabakov’s book and had ultimately unbalanced the film. In Dr. Strangelove, Columbia Pictures insisted Sellers be cast in multiple roles as he had in Jack Arnold’s 1955 film The Mouse That Roared. This time, Sellers was given four roles including that of the missile-riding Major Kong. In the end, Sellers struggled to master the Texan accent and feigned a sprained ankle to get out of the Major Kong role. But he still did an impressive job on the other three assigned to him: the wheelchair bound ex-Nazi of the title, US president Merkin Muffley and perhaps most successfully, plucky British Group Captain Mandrake.

Madness is never far away in Kubrick’s films. In Strangelove, the whole real life scenario is as mad as the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.) itself, General Jack D. Ripper’s insane fear of bodily fluids is frighteningly convincing, while general Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the Doctor himself are clearly little more balanced.

Kubrick originally planned to end the film with a custard pie fight (perhaps rather like the end of Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone) and even got to the stage of filming it it but the sequence was never used. Peter Sellers’ own life was certainly plagued by personal instability and Peter George who had written the book and helped with the screenplay committed suicide in 1966. Was Kubrick suffering with private demons of his own?

In his biography, John Baxter argues Dr. Strangelove arose from Kubrick’s fear of nuclear war:

“His fears were legitimate, but they also smacked of the paranoia that would increasingly characterise his life and work…because he so distrusted his own mental mechanism, he came to distrust machines also. His films, always preoccupied with systems that fail and plans that don’t succeed, increasingly dealt with the same problems but on a global or cosmic scale…”

He could also be a hard taskmaster putting his set designer Ken Adam through hell creating the sets for the film. But Kubrick got results. The War Room, in the film, in particular, looks amazing,

“Moscow gold could not have produced better propaganda,” wrote one conservative US newspaper about the film. But it was a hit and like many Kubrick films, it would prove initially controversial before eventually achieving classic status.

Kubrick’s eternal struggle for perfectionism had begun.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The success of Dr. Strangelove gave Kubrick the power to do pretty much anything he wanted. He thus decided to settle permanently in the UK, grow a beard, team up with science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke and make the most ambitious film ever made.

Nearly fifty years after it first appeared, 2001 has lost none of its power to both awe and baffle audiences. Even the fact, the year 2001 has long since passed hasn’t really changed this, though it must be said, for a man who predicted that the first moon landings would occur in the year 1970 as far back as 1945 (he was only one year out as they happened in 1969), Clarke managed to be some way out in his prediction of how far advanced space technology would be just 33 years hence. It is doubtful that even by 2101, we’ll be as flying to Jupiter as the film suggests. We certainly weren’t by 2001 as Clarke, though not Kubrick sadly, would live to see.

The film rather defies conventional story synopsis, but broadly speaking some apes in prehistoric times are excited by the arrival of a large black monolith. The monolith seems to have a civilising effect on them and soon they are able to demonstrate impressive examples of cinematic match cut technique. Much much later, in the year 2001, in fact, a ship is sent to investigate another such monolith which has appeared on Jupiter. The mission goes wrong when the ship’s computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) malfunctions and kills most of the crew before being gradually shut down by sole survivor Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea). This surprisingly touching sequence is probably the best loved of the film. Counterculture hippies of the time, however, preferred the psychedelic lightshow precipitated by Bowman flying into the monolith. And then a giant space baby appears, something which er… obviously needs no explanation.

Not everyone liked the film at the time. Roger Ebert later wrote that: “To describe that first screening as a disaster would be wrong, for many of those who remained until the end knew they had seen one of the greatest films ever made… But not everyone remained. Rock Hudson stalked down the aisle, complaining, ‘Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?’ There were many other walkouts, and some restlessness at the film’s slow pace…” A producer’s wife threw up during a screening although that might not have been because of the film. Influential critic Pauline Kael dubbed it “monumentally unimaginative” but unlike many things from the 1960s, the film has aged well and is now considered one of the greatest ever made. Though not “full of stars” (Leonard Rossiter is about the most famous person in it), it was a big hit at the time too, ultimately inspiring an okay sequel (2010 directed by Peter Hymans in 1984), Solaris, essentially a Soviet version (remade by Steven Soderbergh in 2002) and influencing everything from Interstellar (2014) and The Martian (2015) to TV’s Red Dwarf.

The film was the making of special effects guru Douglas Trumbull but he didn’t enjoy working with Kubrick at all. In the generally sympathetic documentary, Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001), made by Kubrick’s brother-in-law, Trumbull says:

“After working with Stanley on 2001, I swore I’d never work for anybody again. Stanley was a hell of a taskmaster. He was difficult. He was demanding. His level of quality control was astronomically close to perfectionism…his mind was so insatiable. I saw that he lived his work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I think he had a hard time keeping up with his own intellect.”

Demanding… perfectionist ..insatiable Turnbull would not be the last person to use these words about Stanley Kubrick.

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Kubrick’s next film was also a science fiction film set in the near future. But it could hardly have been more different from 2001.

Based on Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel of the same name A Clockwork Orange tells the tale of four young thugs in a violent Britain of the late 20th century. Aside from Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) who loves the music of Beethoven, the gang seem to have no interests other than drinking milk and inflicting acts of violence and rape upon the surrounding populace.

Like the book, much of the film’s dialogue is in Nadsat, a futuristic slang, derived from Russian and Yiddish, devised by Burgess. Although different in certain key respects, the film actually follows the book very closely with large sections of the text reproduced almost verbatim. Despite this, Burgess was annoyed that the substantial attention and controversy the film attracted, transformed a book which he had considered a very minor work into easily the most famous thing he had ever written.

Malcolm McDowell, the young star of Clockwork Orange had a famously complex relationship with Kubrick. On the one hand, McDowell loved playing a part he felt (perhaps rightly) he had been born to play and developed a strong friendship with Kubrick during filming. On the other hand, it was a tough shoot. McDowell suffered cracked ribs during filming and at one point was temporarily blinded when his cornea was scratched accidentally.

At one point, McDowell found the director alone in his office listening to something on his headphones. Some Beethoven perhaps? McDowell wondered, wrongly.

 “Another near miss at Heathrow,” Kubrick reported. The director had a tremendous fear of flying,

Kubrick, was in turn, greatly amused when McDowell spontaneously began singing “Singin in the Rain” during one violent scene and immediately bought the rights so Gene Kelly’s most famous song could be used in the film. Kelly had previously been on friendly terms with Kubrick. He blanked him the next time he saw the director and never spoke to him again.

McDowell, then in his late twenties was himself deeply hurt by the brutality with which Kubrick severed all ties with McDowell once production was over. Some of McDowell’s interviews in the years afterwards reflect some bitterness when discussing the director, even bizarrely claiming Kubrick was very badly organised in one.

What happened next couldn’t have helped. After a year of showings, Kubrick withdrew the film from release in the UK. It would not be shown again in the UK (legally) until the year 2000, a year after Kubrick’s death.

McDowell is now in his seventies and has had a good and varied career from playing the lead in Lindsay Anderson’s public school based If..(1968) to recent performances in Amazon Prime series Mozart in the Jungle. It would be understandable, though, if he was a little aggrieved that his most iconic performance was withdrawn from public view in his homeland until he was well into his fifties.

The suppression of the film did not happen because of its lead actor though. For many years, the official line was that Kubrick had intervened due to a number of copycat attacks allegedly linked to the film. Controversy continues to reign as to whether these widely publicised attacks really had been inspired by the film anyway. But in in fact, Kubrick had made the decision on police advice after a series of death threats made towards him and his family.

Kubrick’s next effort Barry Lyndon (1975) is the odd film out here, an 18th century set period drama which flopped on release but has since received considerable critical acclaim. But it was Kubrick’s next film which would see move back away from reality and towards the horror genre and which would bring out the greatest excesses in his character.

The Shining (1980)

Author Stephen King has never liked the film of The Shining much.

Speaking earlier this year, King said:

“The character of Jack Torrance has no arc in that movie. Absolutely no arc at all. When we first see Jack Nicholson, he’s in the office of Mr Ullman, the manager of the hotel, and you know then he’s crazy as a shithouse rat. All he does is get crazier. In the book, he’s a guy who’s struggling with his sanity and finally loses it. To me, that’s a tragedy. In the movie, there’s no tragedy because there’s no real change.

“I think The Shining is a beautiful film and it looks terrific and as I’ve said before, it’s like a big, beautiful Cadillac with no engine inside it … I kept my mouth shut at the time, but I didn’t care for it much,” said King.

King has a point. Nicholson’s Torrance seems crazed even before he begins his job interview for the position at the Overlook Hotel. Whether King did keep his “mouth shut” at the time is more questionable, author Roger Luckhurst says King “conducted a press campaign” against the film at the time of its release.

What’s not in doubt is that The Shining was a tough shoot. “cast and crew… quickly tired of the relentless regime,” writes John Baxter. “Scatman Crothers (who played caretaker, Dick Halloran) had no experience of working methods like Kubrick’s and found the multiple takes gruelling…Kubrick demanded eighty five takes in the middle of which Crothers broke down and cried in frustration. “What do you want Me. Kubrick?’ he screamed.” What do you want?!”… Nobody was sure if the exhausting system bore fruit or if it didn’t simply prop up the mystique of a director who would go to any lengths to achieve his ends.”

Thanks to the Making of the Shining documentary made by Kubrick’s daughter Vivian we get an unstinting portrait of life on set. The footage is all the more remarkable bearing in mind Stanley insisted on approving it first (not an unreasonable demand in the circumstances). Kubrick insisted some scenes unflattering to him and some shots of some members of the cast doing cocaine be excised. But the sequences in which Jack Nicholson intervenes to prevent Kubrick badgering the ageing Crothers are still there as are Kubrick’s relentless haranguing of female lead, Shelley Duvall, at one point accusing her of “ruining the whole movie”. Duvall, had an especially tough time and is in the Guinness Book of Records for enduring 127 takes before one scene was completed.

 There were also reportedly incidents off camera, director SK (Kubrick) not endearing him to the author SK (King) by reportedly calling him at all hours to ask him random questions.

“I think stories of the supernatural are fundamentally optimistic don’t you?” Kubrick reportedly asked King at one morning at seven. “If there are ghosts, then that means we survive death!”

“How the hell does that fit in with the picture?” King asked, perhaps not unreasonably.

“I don’t believe in hell,” the director answered.

Kubrick again, got results. The set for the Overlook Hotel hotel was then the largest ever built at Elstree up to that point and looks spectacular.

“Who wants to see evil in daylight through a wide-angled lens?” complained critic Pauline Kael, spectacularly wrong once again. “We are not frightened.”

But, of course, we were and are. The Shining is now held in higher regard than almost any other horror film. Like Coppola after Apocalypse Now, Kubrick was not quite the same afterwards.

Kubrick made fewer and fewer films over time. Four Kubrick films were released in the sixties, two in the seventies, two in the eighties (seven years apart) and Eyes Wide Shut completed at the end of the 1990s and at the end of Kubrick’s life. Kubrick regretted the fact he was not more prolific. Full Metal Jacket had a brilliant first forty-five minutes but neither it nor Eyes Wide Shut are amongst his best films, Unrealised projects included AI (2001) a sci-fi film later made by Spielberg, though a disappointment and a biopic of Napoleon. It has been argued Kubrick saw himself as a Napoleon-like figure, obsessed with power and terrified of defeat.

Kubrick’s widow Christiane Kubrick has gone to some lengths to argue that her late husband’s controlling reputation is undeserved. In an interview with journalist Lewis Jones she said:

“Yes, Stanley was a perfectionist, but not in the nerdy way that is sometimes reported. And the actors were on his side, because he wanted them to feel that there was all the time in the world.”

There is certainly some truth in this last claim. Actors such as Jack Nicholson and Malcolm McDowell who initially struggled with Kubrick, often ended up amongst his keenest champions.

Kubrick’s portrayal as a paranoid loner also does not generally fit in with the contented family man he so often seems to have been. His unparalleled decision to withdraw A Clockwork Orange from UK distribution, does seem to have occurred not as a result of megalomania but from genuine concern for the wellbeing of himself and his family.

And yet, there is evidence here too, home video footage of Kubrick bullying his children from behind the camera as if he is on a film set. Then there is the 17-page list of instructions for looking after his cats while he went on holiday. well-meant but undeniably obsessive.

Mental illness is, of course, not an issue to be treated flippantly. Just because Stanley Kubrick made films about people as unbalanced as Dr. Strangelove or as violent as Alex DeLarge or Jack Torrance, it does not follow that Kubrick was in any way like that at all. Indeed, he definitely wasn’t.

But did he have a tendency to be paranoid, bullying, obsessive and controlling? The evidence is too strong to suggest otherwise. And as this was undoubtedly essential to his method. We would not have his brilliant array of films otherwise.

Section: What exactly is science fiction anyway?

There has been plenty of discussion about exactly what science fiction is over the years. Thankfully, discussing her own book Onyx and Crake in The Guardian in 2003, Margaret Atwood sorted the matter out forever. “Science fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen,” she told the paper. “Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper. It contains no intergalactic space travel, no teleportation, no Martians.”

Is that all clear? No? Well, it shouldn’t be because it isn’t true. Sci-fi may contain intergalactic space travel, teleportation and Martians but these certainly are not essential ingredients for anything to qualify. The Terminator, The Time Machine, Planet of the Apes and Jurassic Park contain no one of these things. Yet all are clearly science fiction.

Intergalactic space travel, teleportation and Martians incidentally are all things which COULD exist in the future. Test tube babies didn’t exist when Huxley wrote about them in Brave New World. Cloning also didn’t exist once outside the realm of science fiction. And spaceships exist already.

In fairness, there are different definitions around. For the purposes of this feature, science fiction will be defined as any piece of fiction where the major problem has a clear scientific explanation. Clear? So The Thing is science fiction and horror as it has aliens in Apollo 13, meanwhile, is based on real events so is not.

This is tricky in the case in the case of Dr. Strangelove but thankfully film journo, Angie Errigo has already written about this:

“Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy,” he wrote. “It’s a savage, surreal political satire. It’s a cautionary Cold War tale. It’s a suspense farce. And it is also science fiction. Sci-fi is not confined to stories of space exploration, the future, or extra-terrestrial life. Science fiction is speculative fiction about human beings exploring themselves and their possibilities. Crucially — and this is the science bit — it often does this by dealing with humans dealing with technology. Technology running away with us is the basis of Dr. Strangelove.”

I would add that 2001 is clearly sci-fi as it clearly based around a high technology future. Stephen Spielberg appears to deny even this in the film Stanley Kubrick: A Life In Pictures (2001) but let’s ignore that for now. A Clockwork Orange is also set in the future and is also science fiction as are both Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Onyx and Crake whether Atwood wants them to be or not.

Which just leaves The Shining. Which has no scientific basis whatsoever. But it is definitely horror and Geeky Monkey magazine covers that. Happy now?

Book review: Inside Thatcher’s Last Election, by David Young

General Election outcomes always seem inevitable when viewed in retrospect. They rarely seem so at the time.

Take the June 1987 election. Although Labour’s position had improved considerably from its 1983 “longest suicide note in history” manifesto crisis point, it was clearly still some way from electability by 1987. Neil Kinnock was clearly a better leader than Michael Foot had been but he was never exactly popular and there was still concerns over the party’s positions on taxation and defence. What was more, having survived both the Miner’s Strike and the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher in some ways looked stronger than ever. The economy seemed to be thriving (even though public services were not) and even unemployment having reached the horrendous post-war peak total of 3.6 million was now starting to fall. No surprise then that the Tories won a majority of 102, less than in 1983, but more than in any other Tory election win since 1945 before or since. Only Labour under Attlee and Blair have done better.

This is how the election looks now. As Lord David Young’s campaign diaries remind us, the outcome did not always seem so certain in 1987 itself. At the time, the Tory camp was seriously rattled by Labour’s impressive start to the campaign. Boosted by a famous party political broadcast dubbed ‘Kinnock: The Movie’ by the media and directed by Chariots of Fire’s Hugh Hudson, Labour knocked out the Liberal/SDP Alliance threat posed by ‘the Two Davids’ (Owen and Steel) in one fell swoop. Internally, the Tory campaign occasionally collapsed into panic. On ‘Wobbly Thursday,’ Thatcher (privately suffering from a dental problem on the day), seemed visibly irked during a press conference by questions about opinion polls which seemed to suggest the gap between Labour and the Tories was narrowing and that a Hung Parliament might be on the cards. Behind the scenes, at one point, Norman Tebbit reportedly grabbed David Young by the lapels and shouted, “we’re going to lose this fucking election!”

This didn’t happen, although again in retrospect, it is perhaps unsurprising Margaret Thatcher did not survive to fight her fourth General Election campaign. Although, in fairness, very few political leaders do.

The 1987 election campaign was a long time ago now. Nobody much under forty now remembers it. Nobody now under fifty was old enough to vote in it. Although Thatcher herself died in 2013, it is otherwise the most recent British General Election fought in which most of the key players (campaign manager Young himself, Tebbit, Ken Clarke, Douglas Hurd, Michael Dobbs, Davids Owen and Steel) are still alive as of July 2021.

The book’s blurb is a bit silly (it describes Labour as threatening to return the nation to the three-day-week, a crisis which had previously occurred under an earlier Conservative government). Young has written his memoirs before in 1990’s The Enterprise Years. But these diaries provide plenty of insight into the day-to-day realities of fighting a busy election campaign.

Book review: Inside Thatcher’s Last Election: Diaries of the Campaign That Saved Enterprise, by David Young. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.

How to review any film

From 2015!

So you want to make “it” as a hot young movie reviewer? Then why not try following these ten easy steps…

1. Do not just recount the plot of the film

A surprising number of wannabe critics fall into the trap of simply retelling exactly what they have just seen, perhaps to show that they have at least watched the darned thing and understood it. But while a short summary of the early stages of the film is actually not a bad way to start, generally speaking, you should try to break off before any major plot twists start happening. The use of the phrase “spoiler alert” should not be necessary in any decent film review. Unless it’s the title of the movie.

2. Be a protractor: find the right angle…

Whether you want to begin with a summary of the premise or not, at some point you’re going to need some sort of angle to begin from. In the case of the James Bond film Spectre, for example, you could try one of the following…

Historical: “It has now been 53 years since James Bond first appeared on our screens…”

Daniel Craig: “This is Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as the world’s favourite secret agent, matching Pierce Brosnan’s total, ahead of both Dalton (two) and Lazenby (one) but still way behind Connery and Moore (seven apiece)…”

Bold expression of opinion: “First, the bad news: Sam Smith’s new Bond theme is rubbish.”

Comical misunderstanding: “Fear not! It may be Halloween, but despite its title, Spectre is not a horror film.”

Of course, an opening line is not enough in itself. You need to be able to back up your arguments.

3. End as you begin…

Although not essential, a good clever trick is to return in your closing sentence to the subject you brought up in the opening one. So using the above lines you could go with…

“On this evidence, the Bond franchise is good for another fifty years yet.”

“Perhaps then, as with Brosnan or, if you prefer, Steve Guttenberg on the Police Academy films), Craig’s fourth Bond film should also be his last.”

“Thankfully, unlike Sam Smith’s banshee-like caterwauling – I counted no less than four cats leaving the cinema during the title sequence alone – Spectre is an unalloyed delight.”

“On reflection, perhaps Spectre is a horror  film after all. Spectre? Sphincter, more like.” (Actually, perhaps don’t do this one).

4. Avoid cliche

The Bond franchise is quite vulnerable to this sort of guff: “a film that’s guaranteed to leave you shaken, not stirred” (what does this even mean?) “Bond proves once again that he has a licence to thrill”, “out of 8, I score Spectre: 007.”  And so on. Avoid.

5. Do not overdo the waffle

A bit of preamble is good but don’t overdo it.As McFly famously did not sing “It’s Not All About You”. Surprisingly, some people might actually want to hear about the film at some point.

6. Read other reviews

Try Googling “Chris Hallam reviews” or better still, “movie reviews” generally and read the results. Other than writing reviews yourself and perhaps watching films, reading professional reviews is the best tutorship you can receive. Other than actually being tutored by a professional critic obviously. Reviews of films can also often be found in those weird papery version of the internet you can get now: books and magazines.

7. Consider your goals: who is reading your review and why?

There is no need to disappear up your own arse about this but you should bear in mind your audience and what they want. My view is that they want to know a bit about the film while also being briefly entertained. These are the seven golden rules if you want to make “it” as a hot young film reviewer. Good luck!

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe: The truth

The popular TV cartoon series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe ran from 1983 until 1985. Essentially designed to promote the Mattel toy range of He-Man action figures, the series was based around Adam, a prince on the planet Eternia and his ongoing struggle for wrestle control of Castle Grayskull from his rival, the malevolent Skeletor. By holding his sword (be serious, please!) and exclaiming “By the power of Grayskull!” Adam could transform into the all-powerful He-Man. There were a whole host of other characters, plus a spin-off entitled She-Ra in 1985, which was targeted at a female audience.

Despite being set on a make-believe world, each episode would often end with a straight to the camera moral message to the audience delivered by He-Man himself or by one of the other non-evil characters. These were apparently added to combat concerns that the series was too violent for children. These sequences would sometimes edited out of the British transmissions.

Here are just some of them:

There are no magic drugs (He-Man)

“In today’s story Ilena tried taking a magic potion which she thought would help her. Well, she found out there aren’t any magic potions. And you know what? There aren’t any magic drugs either. Anytime you take one from anybody but your parents or your doctor, you’re taking a very big chance. Your gambling with your health, maybe even your life. Drugs don’t make your problems go away, they just create more.”

Very true. Skeletor would be especially well advised to stay off cocaine as he doesn’t have a nose.

Be careful when doing practical jokes (Man-At-Arms)

“You’ve all seen how Orko’s magical tricks don’t always go the way he planned. Sometimes they backfire on him. The same thing is true of practical jokes. Sometimes they don’t go the way you planned, and you or someone else can get hurt. So be sure and think twice before playing a joke or a trick on anybody. It might not go the way you planned and someone could wind up losing a finger or an arm, or maybe even an eye. And no joke is worth that is it? See you again soon.”

Bloody hell! An arm or an eye? What sort of practical jokes were they thinking of? One involving a chainsaw? Is that what happened to Skeletor’s eyes?

Respect Magna Carta (He-Man and Teela)

Teela: “A very long time ago a wonderful document came into being. It was called the Magna Carta.”

He-Man: “It was the first big step in recognizing that all people were created equal. But even though more laws have been passed to guarantee that, there are still those who try to keep others from being free.”

Teela: “Fortunately Queen Sumana realized in time that only by working together could her city be saved. And that’s the way it should be. Together. Right?”

He-Man: “Right.”

Er…so they had Magna Carta on Eternia too then? I didn’t know they even had it in the USA.

Don’t ram things too much (Ram Man)

“In today’s story I sure was busy. Boy, did that hurt. Ramming things may look like fun, but it really isn’t. Trying to use your head the way I do is not only dangerous, it’s dumb. I mean you could get hurt badly. So listen to Rammy, play safely and when you use your head, use it the way it was meant to be used, to think. Until later, so long!”

Got that? If you’re ramming while reading this, please stop immediately. Ram Man (not to be confused with ‘Rainman’) was a minor character. He’s wrong about this though. Ramming is definitely fun. Ram Man, thank you man.

Sleep properly (Orko and Cringer)

Orko: “Hi, today we met some people who had slept for over two hundred years. Well, we don’t need that much sleep, but it is important to get enough sleep. So here’s some things to remember. Don’t eat a lot before going to bed, a glass of milk or a piece of fruit makes a good bedtime snack. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and avoid any exercise or excitement before going to bed. Well, goodnight. Oh, goodnight Cringer!”

Cringer: (snoring).

Does eating fruit before bedtime really help you sleep? I’m not convinced. Anyone…?

We all have a special magic (Sorceress)
“Today we saw people fighting over the Starchild, but in the end her power brought these people together. It might surprise you to know that all of us have a power like the Starchild’s. You can’t see it or touch it, but you can feel it. It’s called love. When you care deeply about others and are kind and gentle, then you’re using that power. And that’s very special magic indeed. Until later, good-bye for now.”

Sorceress was clearly to busy building a nest to read the first moral, Sorceress. Stay off the magic drugs! (Also, looking at this picture suspect Sorceress might have been introduced “for the dads”).

Your brain is stronger than any muscle (Man-At-Arms)

“Being the most powerful man in the universe isn’t all that makes He-Man such a great hero. Being strong is fine, but there’s something even better. In today’s story He-Man used something even more powerful than his muscles to beat Skeletor. Do you know what it was? If you said, ‘his brain,’ you were right. And just like a muscle, your brain is something you can develop to give yourself great power.”

I’m not sure Man-At-Arms was the best choice to put forward this argument, to be honest. He’s got “university of life” written all over him.

Play it safe (He-Man and Battle Cat)

He-Man: “I’d like to talk to you for just a moment about safety. When we go to the beach there are lifeguards there to watch out for our safety. Crossing guards are in the street for the same reason, to help protect us. Now things like that are fine, but we can’t count on someone always being around to protect us. We should practice thinking of safety all the time. So don’t take a chance. And that’s true whether you’re crossing a street, or driving a car. Think safety.”
Battle Cat: (Roaring)

The beach? ‘Crossing guards’? Has He-Man been to Earth at some point? And what does “practice thinking of safety” mean? Nice of Battle Cat to contribute here too. Much appreciated, thanks.

Learn from experience (He-Man and Battle Cat)

He-Man: “As we’ve just seen Skeletor went back into the past to make evil things happen. In reality no one can go back into the past, that’s only make-believe. But we can try to learn from the past, from things that have happened to us, and try to apply them toward being better people today. Remember, it’s today that counts. So make it the best day possible. Until next time this is He-Man wishing you good health and good luck.”

Battle Cat: (Roaring)

Learn from he mistakes of history. But also live for today: that’s all that matters. Make your mind up, please!

No job is unimportant (He-Man)

“Have you ever had a job to do you thought was boring and unimportant. We all have. Opi did. But no job is unimportant. Opi learned that if he’d done the little jobs his father gave him, things would not have gone wrong. So remember, any job worth doing is worth doing well. No matter how dull it may seem at the time. Bye for now.”

Sadly, this one isn’t true. Some jobs are both boring and unimportant. Composing the moral messages used on the end of children’s TV cartoons, for example.

Fighting is bad (Teela)

“Some people think the only way to solve a difference is to fight. Skeletor for example, his answer to every problem is to fight. He doesn’t care who’s right or wrong. He thinks that might makes right. Well, it doesn’t. He-Man knows that, even with all his power, he always tries to avoid fighting. Fighting doesn’t solve problems. Fighting only makes more problems. See you soon.”

Bloody hell! This is a bit rich. He-Man spends half of every episode fighting.

Read a book (He-Man)

“I hope you enjoyed today’s adventure. You know television is not the only way to be entertained by an exciting story. There is another way; it’s called reading. And one of the wonderful things about books is that they allow you to choose whatever kind of adventure you like; a trip with an astronaut, an adventure with the great detective Sherlock Holmes, a comedy, anything. You can find it in a book at your school or neighbourhood library. Why I’ll bet there are even some good books right in your own home just waiting to be read.”

In other words, in the immortal words of the 1980s UK kids’ show, ‘Why Don’t You?’ “switch off your TV set and go out and do something less boring instead.” Especially now this episode of He-Man has finished.

A is for Alan: Alan Moore at the movies

By Chris Hallam

First published: 2017

Alan Moore is the undisputed bearded Northampton-based God of the British comics realm. Yet he has been notoriously prickly on the subject of adaptations of his own work. He has declined to even watch any of the four major films directly based on his comics and in recent years has in recent years refused any payment. But is he right to do so? Is The Watchmen really in the same League as the Extraordinary Gentlemen? Is the film of V From Vendetta really From Hell? Chris Hallam checks it out…

In 1977, Alan Moore, then a twenty-four-year old employee of the Northampton gas board decided to quit his job and try to pursue a career as a comic writer instead. The timing, to some, might have seemed odd. Moore was not rich and was married with a baby on the way. But for Moore it was a “now or never” moment: “I knew that if I didn’t give up the job” (which he hated) “and make some sort of stab at an artistic career before the baby was born that…I knew I wouldn’t have been up for it once I had those big imploring eyes staring up at me,” he said later. “So, I quit.”

The gamble paid off. First, it was just a few cartoons in heavy metal magazines and the odd Tharg’s Futureshock for the new science fiction comic 2000AD. But then the trickle turned into a flood. Soon came V For Vendetta in Warrior, The Ballad of Halo Jones and then, amongst many other things, Watchmen, perhaps the most acclaimed graphic novel ever made. Alan Moore was perhaps the biggest name in British comics to emerge in the Eighties.

Soon inevitably people began to talk of filming his works and Moore was initially keen enough. A film, Return of the Swamp Thing (1989), based on a DC strip by Moore was filmed. But early plans for a V For Vendetta TV series and a film of Watchmen faltered. The timing was not yet right.

But by the start of the 21st century, following the success of Blade and The X-Men, filmmakers began filming every comic they could get their hands on: Road To Perdition, Ghost World, A History of Violence and TV’s The Walking Dead have all been consequences of this trend.

But the four attempts to film Alan Moore’s works in the first decade of the millennium had somewhat mixed results. And they would not make their creator happy at all.

“The idea that there is something prestigious about having your work made into a film, that is something which infuriates me because it seems to be something that everybody else in the industry absolutely believes.” Alan Moore.

A Ripping Yarn?

The comic: From Hell (1989-1996) produced with illustrator Eddie Campbell.

The film: From Hell (2001) directed by the Hughes Brothers and starring Jonny Depp, Heather Graham, Jason Flemying, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Sir Ian Richardson.

In print:

Moore’s take on the notorious Jack the Ripper case is probably one of Moore’s less accessible stories. At one point, for example, it draws a rather strange connection between the 1888 Whitechapel murders and the conception of Adolf Hitler in Austria-Hungary, two events which admittedly must have occurred at about the same time. From Hell thus seemed rather an odd choice for the big screen treatment.

On screen:

The Hughes’ Brothers broke with the original story early on choosing to make the story a whodunnit (something Moore had gone out of his way to avoid doing) and by viewing it from the perspective of Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp’s performance virtually identical to his turn as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 1999), rather than from the viewpoint of the Ripper himself, who in the graphic novel is identified early on as Sir William Gull (Ian Holm).

Moore’s view:

As Moore’s biographer Lance Parkin has written, Moore’s approach to his films was more one of indifference than outright hostility at this stage. He accepted payment for the film and was apparently pleased by the casting of actress Heather Graham as she had had a small part in one of his favourite TV series, Twin Peaks. But having recognized it was not going to be very similar to the original story early on, Moore distanced himself from the film and has never bothered to watch it.

Verdict:

“I’d be quite happy if they made Carry On Ripping. It’s not my book, it’s their film.” Moore’s verdict is correct. From Hell is a silly over the top film full of clichés and bad acting.

A League Of Their Own?

“Mr. Alan Moore, author and former circus exhibit (as ‘The What-Is-It from Borneo’), is chiefly famed for his chapbooks produced with the younger reader in mind. He astounded the Penny Dreadful world with such noted pamphlets as ‘A Child’s Garden of Venereal Horrors’ (1864), and ‘Cocaine and Rowing: The Sure way to Health’ (1872) before inheriting a Cumbrian jute mill and, in 1904, expiring of Scorn.” Author description of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, 1999-2007).

The film: Directed by Stephen Norrington (2003) this starred Sir Sean Connery, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Peta Wilson and Stuart Townsend.

In print: Not to be confused with the 1960 classic British movie crime caper starring Jack Hawkins or the early 21st century Royston Vasey-based dark BBC comedy series (both actually just called The League of Gentlemen), this witty Victorian pastiche was reportedly optioned before artist Kevin O’Neill had even finished drawing the first issue. Bringing together the cream of Victorian fiction – Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Allan Quatermain and Jekyll and Hyde amongst others – into a formidable superhero-style team, this should have been perfect for the big screen. In theory…

On screen: A commercial success, LXG (as some promotions referred to it) was an unruly disaster and probably the worst Moore adaptation yet made. Minor changes were made such as the introduction of characters Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray to the line-up (there were also issues affecting the copyright of the Invisible Man’s character: in the end “an” rather than “the” invisible man appeared). But these seemed unimportant next to the fact the film as a whole, was a complete travesty of the original. It was also a notoriously bad shoot with Sir Sean Connery (playing King Solomon’s Mines star Quatermain) falling out with director Stephen “Blade” Norrington. According to some reports, the two men came to blows. Connery, a screen legend then in his seventies, vowed never to be in a film again. He never has. Norrington has never directed any films since either.

Moore’s view: Worse was to come as a lawsuit was brought against the film alleging it had plagiarized another script called Cast Of Characters. Moore, who had never wanted the film anyway was cross questioned for hours based on the suggestion that he had only written the comic as a front to disguise the film’s supposed unoriginality. The case was settled out of court but in the meantime Moore was understandably very annoyed indeed.

Verdict: A film already apparently guilty of the crime of ending Sean Connery’s long film career, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen also turned Alan Moore off film versions of his comics forever. Not that he was ever exactly super keen anyway…

Remember, Remember

The comic: V For Vendetta (1982-1989), art by David Lloyd (and Tony Weare).

The film: 2006 film directed by James McTeigue, written by the Wachowskis and starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Fry and the late John Hurt amongst others.

In print:

A chilling portrait of a futuristic Britain that has succumbed to fascism after a limited nuclear war has destroyed much of the rest of the world, the “hero” (if hero, he be) is V, a mysterious masked Jacobin vigilante prone to speaking in strange verse, nasty practical jokes and setting up impressive and time-consuming domino displays for his own amusement. But who exactly is he? And can he save young Evey Hammond from the dark forces which threaten to engulf her?

On screen:

One big problem with filming V For Vendetta was the story’s obsession with the concept of November 5th. Virtually everyone outside the UK is unfamiliar with Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot and so a short sequence explaining the idea was added for the benefit of our American cousins. The nuclear war of the original is replaced by a backstory involving a devastating epidemic but generally the film is surprisingly faithful to the original. This is, after all, a film in which the hero is a terrorist who blows up underground trains which was released only a few months after the July 2005 bombings. In short, some bits don’t work that well – V’s strange rhetoric doesn’t always work on screen and the Benny Hill like sequences in the TV show seem a bit odd. Other elements such as Stephen Rea’s performance as an investigating officer and the near perfect recreation of the powerful ‘Valerie’ sequence from the comic, work brilliantly.

Moore’s view: Although artist David Lloyd enthusiastically endorsed the film, Moore disassociated himself entirely even went going so far as getting his own name removed from the credits. He also expressed anger (apparently still without having seen it) that the Wachowskis had used his story to (he argued) satirize Bush era America, rather than maintaining the Thatcher-era anti-fascist perspective of the original.

Verdict: Although not a complete triumph by any means, V For Vendetta was reasonably well received by most audiences and critics. It’s certainly interesting enough that you can’t help wishing Moore would lift-up his own self-imposed mask for a moment and take a sneaky peak at it.

Manhattan Transfer

The comic: Moore’s masterpiece completed with artist Dave Gibbons between 1986 and 1987.

The film was directed by Zach Snyder in 2009 starred Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode and Jeffery Dean Morgan.

Summary: A brilliant and complex saga which transformed the world of comics forever, The Watchman incorporates superheroes, pirates, nuclear apocalypse and an all-powerful blue man who likes sitting around in space.

On screen: After a fan-pleasing, superbly made title sequence in which we get to see such sights as Dr. Manhattan meeting President Kennedy (before The Comedian, played by Jeffery Dean Morgan helps assassinate him), this does a largely faithful job of translating Moore’s vision to the big screen. It’s not perfect: Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias is a bit too obviously villainous from the outset and many other scenes seem unnecessarily violent. But some sequences– the creation of Dr. Manhattan, for example – are, like the Valerie sequence in V For Vendetta – transferred perfectly from the comic. Dean Morgan is especially well cast as the ultra-conservative Comedian, a man who despite no obvious super powers, successfully wins the Vietnam War for the US, kills JFK, and prevents the Watergate Scandal from happening. The three-and-a-half-hour DVD extended version even incorporates animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences into the film, pirate stories which even somewhat overwhelmed the narrative in the original comic.

Some viewers might be left wondering: would deliberately unleashing a sudden massive unexplained explosion really would be the best way to defuse a Cold War superpower stand-off. They might also ask: Did Richard Nixon really look like that? Or if Dr. Manhattan is genuinely quite annoying. But hey! These are mostly failings of the comic, not the film.

Moore’s view: Terry Gilliam had originally planned to direct The Watchmen in the Eighties with Arnold Schwarzenegger tipped to play Dr. Manhattan, Robin Williams, the sinister Rorschach, Jamie Lee Curtis the Silk Specter and Richard Gere, Nite Owl. Gilliam was ultimately unhappy with Sam Hamm’s script which saw Ozymandias travelling back in time to prevent Dr. Manhattan’s creation, thus changing the course of the Cold War and ultimately saving the world. The project fell apart. Twenty years later, it was resurrected, by which time Moore was dead against it.

Verdict: Probably the best film adapted from Moore’s works. A shame he hasn’t seen it really. He’s not alone though: although not an outright flop, The Watchman disappointed at the box office.

Faith No Moore

The Watchmen did not mark the end of TV and movie versions of Alan Moore’s comic stories. We haven’t even mentioned Constantine (2005) starring Keanu Reeves and future Oscar winners Rachel Weitz and Tilda Swinton which was based on a character Moore had created for DC. The reasonably well-received film spawned a short-lived TV series starring Matt Ryan and will soon appear in animated TV form. There is talk of rebooting The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and a TV series of The Watchmen is in development.

Perhaps most significantly The Killing Joke, an animated film version of Moore’s celebrated Batman story produced with Brian Boland in 1988 was released in 2016. Reviews were bad.

Whatever, we may think of the movie and TV versions of the works of Alan Moore, however, one thing is clear: forty years after he started to build a career in comics, he is powerless to stop other people making films of his work.

CHRIS HALLAM

Book review: All In It Together, by Alwyn Turner

How soon is too soon to write about the history of a particular time and place?

Following on from his earlier three excellent volumes which took us from the start of the 1970s to the dawn of the new millennium, Alwyn Turner’s new book picks up the English story at the time of New Labour’s second massive General Election victory in 2001 before dropping us off again at the time of David Cameron’s surprise narrow win in 2015. The stage is set for the divisive Brexit battles of the last five years and for the divisive leadership of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn after 2015, but the narrative clearly stops before getting to either. Turner’s book is packed full of reminders of this eventful and turbulent period. Who now remembers Pastygate? Cleggmania? Russell Brand’s dialogue with Ed Miliband or Robert Kilroy Silk’s thwarted battle to take over UKIP? Viewed from the perspective of the current Coronavirus pandemic which, writing in July 2021, has thus far totally dominated the third decade of the 21st century, Turner’s social history of this busy and already seemingly historically quite distant fourteen year period already seems very welcome.

It is not all about politics, of course. As before, Turner takes a good look too at changes in society as viewed through the prism of TV, literature and other developments. No doubt he will one day have much to say about the recent Euro 2020 Finals and subsequent race row. Here, for example, we get a thorough comparison between the different styles of comedians, Jimmy Carr and Roy Chubby Brown. Both are edgy and deliberately tackle sensitive subjects for their humour. Carr, is however, middle-class and Cambridge-educated while Brown never conceals his working-class origins. Carr is frequently on TV, while Brown, although popular, is never allowed on. But, as Turner points out, it s not simply a matter of class. Carr is deliberately careful, firstly never to go too far or to appear as if he is endorsing any (or most) of the dark things he talks about. Brown is much less cautious. He frequently pushes his jokes into genuinely uneasy territory and occasionally seems to be making crowd-pleasing anti-immigration points which totally lack any comedic punchline. Whereas Carr clearly has a carefully constructed stage persona, it is unclear where the stage Roy Chubby Brown begins and ends.

Class comes up a fair bit in the book. Turner identifies a definite resurgence in the popularity of posher folk in public life during this period. Some are obvious: TV chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Chris Martin of Coldplay, the rise of Boris Johnson or David Cameron, the first Tory leader to come from a public school background in forty years. Others are less obvious: musician Lily Allen was privately educated as were Gemma Collins and some of her other The Only Way is Essex companions. Even Labour’s Andy Burnham went to Cambridge.

The underrated Russell T. Davies 2003 TV drama, Second Coming in which Christopher Eccleston’s video shop assistant surprisingly claims to be the Son of God and then even more surprisingly actually turns out to genuinely be him. The phone hacking scandal. The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. The rise and fall of George Galloway. The London riots. The Jimmy Saville affair and other scandals. The TV show, Life on Mars. All these topics are revisited by Turner in intelligent and readable fashion.

Other interesting nuggets of information also come in the footnotes. “By 2009 over 9 per cent of Peterborough had come to the city from overseas.” Alexander Armstrong was the first man to play David Cameron in a TV drama in 2007’s The Trial of Tony Blair (aired during Blair’s final months in office). We also get reminders of some of the better jokes of the period in this manner. Frank Skinner’s “George Osborne has two types of friends: the haves and the have yachts.” Or the late Linda Smith’s take on the 2005 Tory election slogan: “Are you sinking like we’re sinking?”

We are also kept informed of the main biscuit preferences of our political leaders, an issue Gordon Brown, a brilliant man, but always uneasy with popular culture, characteristically messed up answering.

There is less about music, although Turner does at one point suggest that the Spice Girls “might have been the last group that really mattered, that meant something beyond record sales and outside their own constituency.”

Turner does well to retain a position of political neutrality here and is especially good at retracing the early machinations on the Labour Left and the Eurosceptic Right which in seemed irrelevant at the start of this era but which by the end of it came to seem very important indeed. It is, indeed, a very depressing period for anyone on the liberal left. In 2001, the Lib Dems under their dynamic young leader, Charles Kennedy seemed poised to become the nation’s second party. By 2015, Kennedy was dead and the party wasn’t even registering in third place in terms of either seats or share of the vote. In 2001, Tony Blair won a second huge landslide majority, seemed to have the world at his feet and was one of the most highly regarded political leaders of recent times. Furthermore, no one serious in political life was even remotely contemplating withdrawing from the European Union.

What changed? Read this endlessly fascinating book to find out.

Book review: All In It Together, England in the Early 21st Century, by Alwyn Turner. Published by: Profile Books. Available: now.

Book review: Where Did I Go Right? by Geoff Norcott

Geoff Norcott is that rarest of breeds: a popular and funny right-wing comedian.

Whereas, even only a few years ago, most people would have struggled to name even one living British comedian with conservative views (particularly when the list is shortened further to exclude those who are not openly racist), Norcott has risen to fame largely on the basis of his appearances as the ‘token right-winger’ on the BBC’s excellent topic comedy show, The Mash Report. The show was cancelled earlier this year, largely as a result of concerns by nervous BBC execs that, Norcott’s contribution aside, it was too left-wing.

Some would doubtless challenge me for even agreeing to review this book and thus provide the oxygen of publicity to someone who is not only a self-confessed Tory voter and a Brexiteer.

To these people I would point out first that Norcott clearly represents the more acceptable face of the Right. He is clearly not racist at all and in 2019 was appointed as a member of a BBC Diversity Panel with the aim of ensuring the corporation represents a broad cross section of the public’s views. He is also, it must be mentioned, deeply sceptical about the leadership skills of Boris Johnson. This is a definite point in his favour, even if his scepticism was not quite sufficient to prevent him from helping vote Johnson back into power in the December 2019 General Election.

Secondly, I would argue strongly that we shut out voices such as Norcott’s at our peril. Nobody’s life is perfectly typical of anything, but Norcott seems to be a textbook example of the sort of voter Labour could once, perhaps complacently rely on to support them as recently as the 1990s and 2000s but who they have since lost with fatal consequences. With much of Norcott’s assessment of Labour taking the form of critical advice rather than flagrant attacks, he is certainly worth listening to.

By coincidence, me and Geoff Norcott are almost exactly the same age. He was born six days earlier than me in December 1976. Like me, his first ever experience of voting in a General Election as a twenty-year-old was for New Labour in May 1997. He describes his feeling on leaving the voting booth:

“It was probably the first and last time I ever felt total conviction about the party I voted for,” I feel the same. It was a combination of the perhaps misplaced certainties of youth. But it was also, I think, something about the political mood of 1997.

Like me, he returned, perhaps slightly less enthusiastically to voting Labour in 2001. Thereafter, our paths diverge. I came very close to voting Lib Dem in 2005, largely because of my opposition to the war in Iraq (I eventually held my nose and voted for my local Labour candidate who was anti-war, but lost her seat anyway). Norcott doesn’t mention his views on the war, but did vote Lib Dem, partly because like me, he admired their then leader, the late Charles Kennedy, but also as part of a slow journey he was undergoing towards the Tories. In the last four General Elections held since 2010, he voted Conservative. He also voted Leave in 2016.

In truth, Geoff Norcott, although from a traditionally Labour family had been showing conservative instincts from a young age. He had an entirely different upbringing to me. Mine was comfortable and middle-class, his was marred by both poverty and parental divorce. He is sceptical about the welfare system based on his own family experiences and is less enthusiastic than most people are these days about the NHS. He felt endlessly patronised while at Goldsmith College, London in the mid-1990s and has come away with a lifelong scepticism about left-wing middle-class liberals, many of whom frequently serve as targets for his humour today, (for example, on the marches for a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit: “The idea that loads of liberals having a day out in London with chopped kale power salads and terrible chants in some way spoke for the country was laughable”). He has had some tough battles on Twitter. Critics of his appearances on Question Time have variously attacked him for either being rich and self-interested or too common to be on TV. He now seems to be convinced Twitter is a hotbed of left-wing sentiment. I’m not sure it is.

The book takes us through his difficult early years, a brief stint in media sales, his work as a teacher, his time entertaining the troops overseas, a series of personal tragedies a few years ago through to his final success as a successful and reasonably well-known comedian and now author, settled with his family in Cambridgeshire.

Needless to say, I don’t agree with him on many things. He believes the Blair and Brown governments spent too much: I don’t think they did particularly, and even if they did, this certainly does not explain why the credit crunch happened. His main criticism of people like the Milibands and Keir Starmer seems to be largely based on the fact that they are middle-class and cannot claim any link to working-class people. In my view, this is true but is surely dwarfed by the facts that the their opponents men such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson were born into lives of such immense privilege to the extent that these leaders have no knowledge or interest in reducing poverty at all. I suspect, at root, like many right-wing people, Norcott thinks there is something hypocritical about anyone with money having a social conscience about anything, while his tolerance for rich leaders who openly don’t give a toss about society is much greater. This has never been my view. My horror at the Tory record on homelessness, unemployment and underfunding of the health service has always been sufficient to drive me away me from ever voting for them, particularly when combined with the frequent right-wing tendency (not shared by Norcott himself) to either be racist or to blame many of the weakest and poorest in the world for many of society’s ills.

Geoff Norcott is, of course, now successful enough to be considered middle-class himself and undoubtedly has many left-wing comics amongst his friendship circle. None of which should detract from this sometimes funny, enjoyable and often useful book which is packed with useful phrases such as ,”when you demonise a voter, you lose them forever” which many of us would do well to remember.

Book review: Where Did I Go Right?: How The Left Lost Me, by Geoff Norcott. Published by: Octopus. Available: now.

My cinema year: 1987

A-Ha! They did the theme tune, I mean.

TOP 1987 MOVIES AT THE WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE

I saw one of these at the cinema in 1987. I have seen nine of them now.

  1. Fatal Attraction
  2. Beverly Hills Cop II
  3. Dirty Dancing
  4. The Living Daylights
  5. 3 Men and a Baby
  6. Good Morning Vietnam
  7. Lethal Weapon
  8. Predator
  9. Moonstruck
  10. The Untouchables

The Living Daylights was the first of Timothy Dalton’s two outings as 007. Dalton is not usually considered to have been the best Bond by most fans and nobody seems to consider this to have been the best James Bond film. I am not a big Bond fan and maybe it was the novelty of seeing the character on the big screen for the first time. But I’m sure I have never enjoyed any James Bond film as much as when I saw this as an excited ten-year-old. I was consistently entertained throughout. The bit where he hangs off the back of a plane. The beautiful blonde cellist. The chase through the snow. I loved it.

Sadly, Dalton’s next outing as Bond, Licence to Kill flopped, perhaps in part because it was given a ’15’ certificate preventing twelve-year-olds like me from seeing it. The first ’12’ certificate film, Tim Burton’s Batman was released a week after Licence to Kill in August 1989, which presumably didn’t help. Dalton was dropped and the franchise was ‘rested’ for five years as filmmakers contemplated how to respond to the end of the Cold War and films like Die Hard driving up budgetary expectations.

Another reason for Licence to Kill’s failure? Unlike The Living Daylights, it was rubbish.

“Replacing me?…What?…Pierce who???”

The Living Daylights didn’t actually make the U.S top ten, so am pleased I got a list for the global 1987 box office here. Aside from that and one other film, I’m pretty sure I saw all the other films on either video or TV by the end of the 1990s, the decade where I truly became a film buff.

The Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop franchises never impressed me much and Fatal Attraction (directed by Adrian Lyne, who like me, was born in Peterborough) always seems a bit overrated, perhaps because of the famous bunny boiler sequence. Presumed Innocent was better. I liked Moonstruck when I saw it. Cher’s in it. John Mahoney crops up in it too. What was it about? I’ve no idea now. Is Nicholas Cage in it too?

The Untouchables is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there are a number of memorable sequences: De Niro and the baseball bat, the exploding suitcase girl, Costner pushing the guy off the roof (“he’s in the car”) and the copied Odessa Steps gunfight. Connery’s ‘Irish’ accent is all over the place though. He basically won an Oscar because he was shot about a million times and still took an hour to die.

I quite liked Dirty Dancing (the film I mean, not the activity). When I was about 18, it seemed to be every girl’s favourite film.

The Untouchables: no inhibitions about enforcing prohibition.

A friend showed me all the violent bits of Predator on video. I hadn’t asked him to. This came in handy when I later saw the heavily censored version on ITV. It’s a classic sci-fi. Good Morning Vietnam also made an impact.

I’ve never seen 3 Men and a Baby. I suspect I never will now. I don’t think I’ve missed much. For a while rumours circulated that a ‘real-life’ ghost appears briefly in one scene of this comedy, supposedly a boy who died in the apartment where the movie was filmed. Stills of the supposed phantom apparently standing in the background and ‘looking’ towards the camera do genuinely look quite creepy. Some have claimed the rumours were deliberately encouraged to boost sales and rentals of the video on its release in 1990.

Slowly, the truth emerged. The ‘boy’ was revealed to have been a cardboard cut-out of Ted Danson’s character (dressed in a top hat and tails) which had been left in the background after being used in a scene which was subsequently deleted. Danson’s character in the film was apparently an actor and the cut-out would have been related to a commercial the character was filming. Director Leonard ‘Mr Spock’ Nimoy seems not to have noticed the prop was still in shot, or at least was unable to remove it for whatever reason.

An odd explanation? Perhaps, yet still more plausible than the alternative, especially when you remember ghosts don’t actually exist in real life. Also, no boys died in the apartment. There wasn’t even an apartment. The film’s ‘apartment’ scenes were not even filmed in an apartment at all but on a sound stage.

One man, one woman, one cardboard cut-out. And a baby. But which is which? Find out next time.

My cinema year: 1986

TOP 10 U.S FILMS IN 1986

I saw none of these at the cinema then. I have seen 7 since.

  1. Top Gun (watched on TV in 1990. Flying scenes ace. The rest is rubbish).
  2. Crocodile Dundee (video in 1980s. Seemed fun then. Now seems offensive).
  3. Platoon (saw in 90s Excellent but grim)
  4. The Karate Kid Part II (Never seen)
  5. Star Trek IV; The Voyage Home (saw in 90s. Fun)
  6. Back To School (Never seen. Straight to video in UK)
  7. Aliens (saw in 90s. Excellent)
  8. The Golden Child (Never seen)
  9. Ruthless People (saw in 90s? Unmemorable)
  10. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (saw in 90s. Quite enjoyed)

The Transformers were the dominant toy craze of my childhood. At least, they were for boys.

There were other toys, yes: He-Man, MASK, Thundercats, Action Force and Zoids. But nothing else came close to the robots in disguise from Cybertron.

It was a different era. Who needed Amazon Prime when you had Optimus Prime? Need a villain? Forget Meghan Markle, try Megatron! Suffering from heartburn? Check out Galvatron! Instead of…er…Galviscon. Well, you get the general idea anyway.

I was fully sold. I got two Transformers Choose Your Own Adventure books. I replaced The Muppets lunchbox I’d had since Infants’ School with a new one featuring Optimus Prime. The Marvel UK TF comic joined Whizzer and Chips, The Beano, Buster and Oink! amongst my regular reads. I collected the Transformers’ Panini sticker collection and once got a very nearly complete album in exchange for a Whoopee cushion I’d brought to school. This was a real bargain: my friend burst the cushion later that day anyway. But I did get a mild telling off as the cushion had been given to me as a present. I shouldn’t have swapped it. It now seems odd I was allowed to take it to school.

We were given the opportunity to write stories for a special school storybook that year. I was regarded as one of the best storywriters in school but of all the topics in the world, I chose to write one about the Transformers. A friend (the same one who I got the sticker album off) drew the pictures. The narrative featured a U.S leader called ‘President Reynolds’ and another human hero called ‘Flip Jackson’. ‘Reynolds’ still sounds like a good name for a fictional US president but, on reflection, I’m not sure ‘Flip Jackson’ is entirely convincing as a typical American name.

In December 1986, I went to see Transformers: The Movie to celebrate my tenth birthday. The late Orson Welles, Eric Idle and Leonard Nimoy were amongst the voice cast for this cartoon but while I knew of Star Trek’s Mr Spock, I would not have recognised these names as a nine-year-old. There was a clever time travel storyline with the action switching between 1986 and the futuristic year of 2006. By the actual year, 2006, the live action Transformers film was in fact poised to come out. It’s stars, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox? Both were born in 1986. This makes me feel a bit old, especially as both actors are in their mid-thirties now.

Transformers: The Movie did not come close to making the U.S top ten in 1986. I make no apology for not having seen any of the films on the list at the cinema. It is not a very child-friendly list. Roughly half of them would not have been accessible to a nine-year-old cinemagoer. Top Gun, Aliens, Platoon, Ruthless People and Crocodile Dundee were all rated ’15’ or above (cinema age classification was much stricter then) and with the exception of Star Trek (yes, this is the even-numbered one where they go to 1980s Earth and Spock silences a noisy punk on the bus), I either had no interest or was unaware of all the others. The Rodney Dangerfield comedy Back To School was never released at the cinema in the UK. Two of my subsequent favourite films, Stand By Me and Hannah and her Sisters were released in 1986 incidentally. Neither made the top 10 US films’ list and, of course, neither would have interested me then, had I even been aware of them or able to go and see them.

An odd feature of my Transformers-obsession was that I was not particularly into the toys themselves. I was not very adept at transforming them and did not really enjoy playing with them. My interest did yield dividends though. Earlier this year, I produced a 2,000 word feature on the Transformers Marvel UK comic series for the ‘1984’ volume of the History of Comics anthology. In 2014, I also provided nearly all the written content for the Transformers 2015 annual, published by Pedigree.

My cinema year: 1985

TOP TEN U.S FILMS OF 1985

(I saw one at the cinema then. I have seen six today).

  1. Back to the Future (cinema – amazing)
  2. Rambo First Blood Part II (NS = Never seen)
  3. Rocky IV (saw on video in the 80s)
  4. The Color Purple (NS – Probably should have. Read book though)
  5. Out of Africa (90s TV. Mostly dull)
  6. Cocoon (NS properly – looks dull)
  7. The Jewel of the Nile (video or TV 80s – dull)
  8. Witness (TV/video. 90s – great)
  9. The Goonies (80s video. Good)
  10. Spies Like Us (NS)

I love Back to the Future.

I loved it when I was eight and I love it now. Not every childhood favourite survives the journey to adulthood. Fewer still survive the further journey into middle age. What pleases a child of the Eighties is, after all, not necessarily the same as what pleases a forty-something in the early 2020s. But Back To The Future is an exception. at least for me.

I already liked time travel-related things and was particularly excited after watching a documentary about the genre on TV which in fact turned out to be a cleverly disguised bit of publicity for the new film hosted by star Michael J. Fox himself. He was completely unknown to me at this point (his sitcom Family Ties was never very big in the UK) but he was perfect in the role and remains one of my heroes.

I saw it quickly. I remember the dates on the dashboard of the DeLorean being very close to the day I actually watched it.

I am aware now that there were problems behind the scenes. Disney wanted nothing to do with the film as they were concerned about the potential incest element of the storyline i.e. the young Lorraine fancies her own son. Initial lead Eric Stoltz was sacked early on after failing to tap into the comedy element of the story (a few shots featuring him can still be seen in the completed film). Crispin Glover effectively sabotaged his career by being endlessly temperamental on set: a shame really as he’s perfect as Marty’s father, George. None of these things in any way detract from the overall enjoyability of the film, however.

I am aware that it isn’t quite perfect. The make-up used to ‘age’ the younger actors, such as Lea Thompson, in the 1985 scenes isn’t great. She is that age in real-life now, after all (she is nine days older than her onscreen son, Michael J. Fox) and doesn’t look anything like that. Some people (such as Crispin Glover again) complain that the resolution of the film hinges too heavily on the McFlys’ Reagan-era material success. But though I’ve grown up to be quite the politics geek, this element has never really bothered me. It’s true Marty’s siblings have both become yuppies but George’s sense of fulfilment on becoming a successful science fiction author is surely not purely to do with money anyway.

Like most time travel things, it doesn’t make much sense. Why don’t George and Lorraine notice Marty has grown up to look exactly the same as their old teenaged friend? And, of course, if Marty had really altered the course of his parents’ lives so much, neither he nor his brother or sister wold have been born anyway, creating a paradox. But that would be no fun.

I didn’t see any of the other top ten US films at the cinema. The Goonies was a fun 80s video childhood favourite, complete with a pirate called One-Eyed Willie (a deliberate innuendo?) and a scene where a corpse falls out of a wardrobe onto a child.

I watched Rocky IV on video with both my brothers. I know the original Rocky is supposed to be the great one but for some bizarre reason the montage bit in Rocky IV (Rocky training in the snow while the evil Soviet, Dolph Lungren just takes steroids and says things like, “if he dies, he dies” has stayed with me like nothing else in any of the four or five Rocky films I’ve seen.

I also also saw Ghostbusters (released in 1984 and discussed already), 101 Dalmatians, The Last Starfighter (quite fun but a flop) and Return to Oz (awful and terrifying and a flop) at the cinema in 1985 but none of them made 1985’s US box office top ten.

And none of these were a patch on Back to the Future, a film that, ironically given its subject matter, has proven to be timeless.


My cinema year: 1984

TOP US FILMS OF 1984

(Number I saw at the cinema then: 1. Number I have seen now: 10)

  1. Beverly Hills Cop
  2. Ghostbusters
  3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  4. Gremlins
  5. The Karate Kid
  6. Police Academy
  7. Footloose
  8. Romancing The Stone
  9. Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
  10. Splash

I’ve written a fair few film reviews over the years but thankfully have never had to write a review of Ghostbusters. Why “thankfully” you may ask? The simple answer is, because it was such a big film during my early childhood that I really cannot view it impartially. Is it a good film or is it a bad film? I honestly can’t tell.

Perhaps that’s not quite true. I can say fairly confidently that it isn’t a “bad” film per se. It’s also so fondly remembered that it had definitely achieved a degree of classic status. As Adam Buxton has noted, it was also marketed very well. I later had the Atari computer game (“Don’t cross the streams!”). I love the Stay Puft Marshmallow bit. I actually thought he was real for a while too. Not “real”: but I thought he was a genuine US advertising symbol who had been turned into a monster for the film. But he wasn’t. He was entirely made up for Ghostbusters.

Nearly thirty years later, I actually selected Ghostbusters the song to be played at my wedding (although not for the ‘first dance). It was a popular choice. But is it a genuinely good film? I honestly don’t know.

As with E.T., I had a shock early on: the library ghost sequence is easily the scariest bit in a not very scary film. But I was older now (eight, in fact: I’m sure I didn’t see it until 1985) and was now confident enough to still enjoy the film. I went to see it with my mum who didn’t like it at all. I seem to remember her being so bored that she read a magazine during the film. My memory may be playing me false here, however. How would she have read a magazine in the dark? I don’t think she liked it though anyway.

For the first time, I’ve actually seen all ten films listed, so I’ll run through them all quickly. 1984 seems to have been a much better film year than 1983:

Beverly Hills Cop: Really surprised this beat Ghostbusters to the top spot. Okay, but nothing special as I remember. People went nuts about the theme tune though.

Temple of Doom: Okay, but EASILY the worst of the three 1980s Indy films. I first saw it when it was broadcast on TV on Christmas Day a few years later. Part of the problem is that while the first film is based around the mythical Ark of the Covenant and the third one is based around the mythical Holy Grail, this one’s based around the…er… famous temple of Doom? It might as well be called Indiana Jones and ‘the Chamber of Bollocks.” Too silly, too much screeching, too many jumpy bits. And a bit racist, let’s face it.

Gremlins: Was scared to see this for a while after hearing an American relative describe how evil and demonic the Gremlins are. Of course, I saw it eventually, perhaps in my teens and wasn’t scared at all. It’s great fun. And all the “don’t get them wet/don’t feed them after midnight” stuff is genius.

The Karate Kid: Didn’t see this until my thirties when my wife made me watch it to fill a gap in my cinematic education. It’s okay. I suspect I’d like it more now if I had seen it as a child.

Police Academy: The sort of thing I used to end up watching on video at a friend’s house in the late 1980s. Confused me for a while: are all gay men big leather-clad bikers? Generally not a big fan. But I did later see Police Academy 6: City Under Siege at the cinema. No excuse really.

Footloose: Didn’t see this until my twenties. I still like it a lot though. John Lithgow can do no wrong in my eyes. The “Let’s Here It For The Boy” bit always makes me a bit sad though. Chris Penn was clearly so fit and healthy-looking then. What on Earth went wrong?

Romancing The Stone: Good, as I remember. We saw it as an end of term treat at junior school. It was a relatively ‘dangerous’ choice. The sequel’s not as good though.

Star Trek III: It’s easy to forget how popular Star Trek films were at the time. No one really watches them now. This was an odd numbered Star Trek film though and thus DULL.

Splash: An early video choice for the family. Very likeable and the first time I’d seen Tom Hanks in anything.

My cinema year: 1983

So much bare flesh on display! Why didn’t someone just say, “Jabba! For God’s sake, put some clothes on!”

TOP 10 US FILMS OF 1983

(Number I saw at the cinema then: 1. Number I have seen now: 7)

  1. Return of the Jedi
  2. Terms of Endearment
  3. Flashdance
  4. Trading Places
  5. WarGames
  6. Octopussy
  7. Sudden Impact
  8. Staying Alive
  9. Mr Mom
  10. Risky Business

When I was six, my older brother took me to see Return of the Jedi.

I grew up in Peterborough, a new town in the East Midlands. As with many British towns then, there were two cinemas in the city centre in this case, the Odeon and the Canon (otherwise known as the ABC and the 123, although I’m not sure which way round it went). Even though I was pretty small, we were easily able to walk in. Later, an out of town multiplex opened and drove both of these out of business. Today, there are no cinemas in the city at all which seems appalling for a city of its size (now about 200,000 people, according to Google). I no longer live there, perhaps partly for this reason.

I loved the film. Like most people I would now agree its the weakest of the three original films but it has more memorable set pieces than, say the Empire Strikes Back and better special effects. I enjoyed the bit with Jabba the Hut, the chase through the woods and, of course, the Ewok stuff towards the end. I remember Yoda dying.

As befits a film saga which started with Episode IV, I’m pretty sure I’d never watched the first two films properly at that point, so presumably didn’t understand a lot that was going on. The first film came out when I was a baby and the second one when I was just three. I didn’t watch them properly until the 1990s. My brother was 17 then and I get the impression he’d already seen all three films more than once.

That December, I was lucky enough to get the Millennium Falcon, Jabba, Admiral Ackbar and other related toys for my Christmas and birthday presents, in addition to the CP3PO and Luke and Leia toys which I’d apparently inherited, presumably from my brother. I also remember owning a Return of the Jedi comic. Not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the franchise at this point, however. I think many people had lost enthusiasm through overexposure. This included George Lucas himself who said he would not make any more films. This contradicted earlier suggestions that he might make three prequels.

Welshman Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi incidentally. The importance of the Welsh sci-fi scene is often overlooked.

Awkward. Darth Vader accidentally confuses Star Wars with Star Trek. Idiot!

Otherwise, it must be said, that’s a pretty unimpressive top ten. I don’t think I’ve seen 7, 8 and 9 (I may or may not have seen Sudden Impact). I doubt Mr Mom was even shown at cinemas in the UK. Otherwise, Octopussy (which was actually partly filmed near Peterborough) is the worst James Bond film ever. Trading Places and WarGames are great ideas, poorly executed. Terms of Endearment was okay, I suppose, but surprisingly poor for a Best Oscar winner. I’m surprised Superman 3 didn’t make this list. Not that that was great either.

It should be mentioned the mid-1980s represents the absolute nadir of post-war cinema attendance. Only the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 have been worse so far. Having peaked in the late 1940s, numbers declined steadily in the 1950s as TV and car ownership rose and went into absolute freefall in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Numbers recovered after 1985, helped no doubt, by the opening of the multiplexes I was moaning about earlier. I’m not sure how typical I was, as I was only a child but until about 1989, I often only went to the cinema once or twice myself.

Part of the problem, of course, was video. My family got their own first video player in 1983. The first films we rented were both time travel-related: Time Bandits and the 1960 Time Machine. I’m not sure what prompted my Dad (who generally dislikes sci-fi) to rent either. But I still love both films.

I also loved Return of the Jedi. Thirty years later, I would get to write the Star Wars Clone Wars annual. I’m glad I got to see one of the original Star Wars films on the big screen. This wouldn’t happen again until I was in my twenties.

Solo mission: If anyone can, Han can.

My cinema year: 1982

Is E.T: The Extra Terrestrial the most terrifying film ever made? (Answer: NO)

TOP 10 U.S FILMS OF 1982

(Number I saw at the cinema then: 1. Number I have seen now: 7)

  1. ET – The Extra Terrestrial
  2. Tootsie
  3. An Officer and a Gentleman
  4. Rocky III
  5. Porky’s
  6. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
  7. 48 Hrs
  8. Poltergeist
  9. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
  10. Annie

I remember almost nothing about the year 1982, but I do remember seeing E.T. I mainly remember being terrified.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my first trip to the cinema. I had only just turned five at the start of the year but I’d already seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by this point and Doctor Dolittle (for some reason) on a very early school trip. Neither of these were new films even then, of course, so neither made the top ten in any of the years during which I have been alive. Or ever in Dolittle’s case.

Snow White scared me too: it’s not surprising really.  I was a nervous child admittedly, but the Evil Queen seems quite terrifying to me even now. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way either. Her most chilling moment is when she disguises herself as an old hag so as to trick Snow White into eating the poison apple. It’s a bit odd really: this was the one moment when needs to win her over and she adopts a disguise which makes her look far more horrifying than she looks the rest of the time.

That said, Snow White is at least a classic film. While I think I enjoyed it at the same time, Doctor Dolittle struck me as fairly awful when I saw some of it again a few years later. I may be being harsh here. That said, I remember reading later about how the notoriously difficult Rex Harrison’s high jinks on set essentially ensured that his career was ruined as a result.

Despite my fear, I did manage to enjoy Snow White. Not so, E.T. The alien’s first appearance when E.T’s braying torchlit face appears briefly on screen gave me such a shock that I was so nervous that I was unable to enjoy the rest of the film for fear of it or something happening again.

I’m not sure why I had such an extreme reaction to that bit. Many people are reduced to tears by the film. This has never happened to me. If I cried then it was only out of fear.

For all his box office success, E.T. never appeared in any other films.

Probably about twenty years later, I saw Poltergeist, also on this list, on TV. It’s a good horror but I don’t think it scared me as much then as E.T. did when I saw it in 1982.

The films are, in fact, not dissimilar. Both feature little blonde girls who encounter an alien presence. Steven Spielberg was also heavily involved in both directing E.T. (which was written by the late Melissa Mathison, then about to become the second wife of Harrison Ford) and co-wrote Poltergeist.

I saw nothing else on the list at the cinema but have to date seen seven of the top ten listed above. I never bothered with Annie or Porky’s or the Whorehouse one. I suspect these last two would not have made the top ten in the UK.

48 Hours and Rocky III made little impact on me. Like most people I generally only remember it as “the one with Mr T in.” I did enjoy Tootsie though and on finally watching An Officer and a Gentleman in the 2000s was pretty impressed. Like Saturday Night Fever, it’s a much tougher, grittier film than its reputation suggests.

Incidentally, The Wrath of Khan is also probably the best of the original Star Trek films. Even as a Star Trek fan, I can appreciate this isn’t necessarily very high praise.

1982 was famously the year when many films bombed. Tron, Conan The Barbarian, The Thing. Blade Runner and Cannon and Ball’s The Boys in Blue all flopped, all crushed by the box office juggernaut of E.T. currently the seven biggest blockbuster of all time.

Sadly, although I am certainly no longer scared of it, my early mild trauma has perhaps diminished my appreciation of the film over the years since. In short, I can appreciate it is a classic film but its certainly never been one of my favourites.

And why on Earth does it have such a cumbersome title? “The Extra Terrestrial?” I’ve never met anyone who didn’t just call it “E.T”.

Q: What’s E.T short for? A: He’s got little legs.

Book review: The Comfort Book, by Matt Haig

Matt Haig is truly a writer for our times.

His 2015 book, Reasons To Stay Alive was a starkly honest and highly readable memoir about the most traumatic experience of Haig’s life: namely the devastating attack of chronic depression which engulfed him when he was 24 in 1999 and his long battle to recover from it. His 2018 book, Notes on a Nervous Planet was a more general guide to fending off the demons of depression and anxiety in the age of Twitter and Trump.

It should be mentioned that in addition to his non-fiction output, Haig is a successful novelist too. Although superficially fantastical, The Midnight Library (2020) explored serious issues as its troubled heroine quite literally attempted to live her best possible life. It was one of the best received new British novels of last year. Other books by Haig include The Humans (2013), which is centred on an extra-terrestrial taking brief possession of an English University lecturer and How To Stop Time (2017), in which a man manages to live for several hundred years from the Tudor era to the 21st century. Mental health issues come up in these books too. Haig has also written for children, notably a trilogy of festive books which began with A Boy Called Christmas (2016).

The Comfort Book is not a book with a linear narrative as such but a collection of short chapters of varying length. These can be read in any order, individually or in any manner the reader chooses. The aim is, as the name of the book suggests, to provide hope or comfort to the reader, particularly if they are currently suffering with any mental anguish themselves. And let’s face it: in 2021, many of us are.

Some chapters are so short that they can be quoted here in full. The chapter entitled, ‘To be is to let go’ simply reads: “Self-forgiveness makes the world better. You don’t become a good person by believing you are a bad one.” The chapter, ‘Pasta’ meanwhile simply states: “No physical appearance is worth not eating pasta for.”

An unkind reviewer might suggest the net effect of this is similar to reading a huge collection of fortune cookies at once or to listening to a greatly extended version of Baz Luhrmann’s 1999 release, ‘Everybody’s Free To Wear Sunscreen.” But this would be unfair. I’ve no doubt Matt Haig’s book will prove very helpful to many people. Most of the chapters are far longer than the ones I’ve quoted and Haig draws heavily from his own experiences and from the experiences of others. We learn from Heraclitus, Charles Dickens, Eleanor Roosevelt, Joy Harjo, Bruce Lee, Helen Keller, Marcus Aurelius and plane crash survivor, Juliane Koepcke amongst many others, in addition to Haig himself.

The Comfort Book does not take long to read from cover to cover. However, I have little doubt many people will find themselves returning to it again and again.

Book review: The Comfort Book, by Matt Haig. Published by: Canongate, July 6th 2021.

Book review: The Making of Henry VIII

Most of us probably feel we have some knowledge of Henry VIII. He is undoubtedly one of Britain’s most famous and notorious rulers; a fat, greedy tyrant who divorced two of his six wives and beheaded two more. The second Tudor King was a man so stubborn that he broke with Rome rather than agree to remain married to his first spouse and who killed anyone (for example, Thomas More or Thomas Cromwell) who seriously got in this way.

For once, this crude caricature actually turns out to be true. But how did he get that way? What forces conspired to create such a monstrous and yet fascinating figure?

In truth, Henry’s personality was forged in the 1490s and 1500s, growing up during the reign of his father, Henry VII. Having won power largely as a result of his victory over Richard III in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the first Tudor King’s hold on power often seemed very precarious indeed as his reign came under constant threat from a series of challenges and rebellions from those who like the Pretenders to the Throne, Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck sought to usurp him. Henry VII ruled at the end of a century which had already seen four kings (Richard II, Henry VI, Edward V and Richard III) meet violent ends. In the circumstances, Henry VII did very well to make it to die of natural causes in his fifties, just as Henry VIII would.

Initially in the even more precarious position of being the brother to the heir to the throne, the future Henry VIII outshone his older sibling Prince Arthur even in childhood, quickly becoming supremely accomplished as both a sportsman (his obesity came later) and a scholar. Like many royals he was starved of natural affection, however, and became arrogant, stubborn and greedy. Losing his mother, Elizabeth of York, at a time when he had barely got to really know her, he soon elevated her to such a lofty standard of perfection in his own mind, that none of his own six subsequent wives would ever really be able to live up to her.

First published in 1977, Marie Louise Bruce’s well-written and thorough history about the boy who would be King ends where most books about Henry VIII begin: with the 17 year old Henry’s accession to the throne and prompt marriage to his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. It is as impressive and well-rounded a portrait as one of the great paintings by the legendary Tudor artist, Hans Holbein the Younger himself.

Book review: The Making of Henry VIII, by Marie Louise Bruce. Published by: Sapere Books.

Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford





Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.

In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.

Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.

Book review: The Making of the President, 1960-72, by Theodore H. White

Sixty years on, Theodore H. White’s ground-breaking account of the 1960 US presidential elections is still regarded as a landmark in political reporting. White’s first book and to a lesser extent, his three subsequent volumes on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 contests have provided a template for all such works produced since, for example, the late Richard Cramner’s massive account of the 1988 Bush Vs Dukakis contest, What It Takes or Mark Halperin and John Heilemann books on the 2008 and 2012 elections won by Barack Obama.

White died in 1986, but his writing still provides a unique and fascinating insight into these four contests whose outcomes would prove to have dramatic consequences for both America and the world.

1960

The 1960 elections had everything. Two youthful strong rival candidates both destined in their time to become important and controversial leaders, a fiercely fought primary campaign, a charismatic outsider battling against religious bigotry, an ‘October surprise’ (the upset caused by the TV debates) and a nail-biting photo finish.

White admittedly had a lot to work with but his spell-binding and thorough account is at least as fascinating in discussing the ‘nearly men’ such as Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller as it is about the eventual final nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.

After a 2020 election which ended with only the second Roman Catholic being elected to the White House without the subject ever really being raised, its easy to forget how serious an electoral obstacle Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered in 1960 when he ultimately became the first.

The personality of Richard Nixon inevitably looms large throughout these four volumes. He was the Republican nominee in three of these four elections (1960, 1968 and 1972), the winner of two (1968 and 1972) and played a smaller role in the 1964 campaign. He comes across badly in this first volume. Initially, the clear favourite, he squanders his advantage, proving a difficult and awkward candidate losing the support of the popular incumbent President Eisenhower and lumbering his campaign with a foolhardy commitment to visit all fifty American states. He was lucky not to lose by more and luckier still to get a chance to stage a comeback.

Did White know about Kennedy’s relentless womanising? We do not know. He was certainly not alone in not reporting them if he did know, however, as non-reporting of candidates’ private lives was certainly the convention at the time. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were to be less fortunate in this regard. Nothing is also said about Mayor Daley’s electoral chicanery in Chicago. Kennedy would have won comfortably in the electoral college without Chicago anyway. Although it is discussed, less is made of the TV debates’ impact by White than has been made since. This is nevertheless a masterful account and the best of the four books in the series.

1964

Foregone conclusions rarely make for exciting elections and White is unfortunate that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was never really in doubt. White delivers an excellent account of the aftermath of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, however, and reminds us just how brilliant a candidate and a president LBJ was in his first year in office, regardless of what happened later. He also reminds us just how terrible a choice Republicans made when they opted for Barry Goldwater (“extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”) over the far more palatable and moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s vice president, a decade later.

“In your heart, you know he’s right,” Goldwater fans insisted. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” critics countered. In the end, Goldwater allowed himself to be painted into a corner and portrayed (White argues unfairly) as a potential welfare abolitionist and nuclear hawk. He lost to LBJ by a record margin. Again, less is made of things which have come to be seen as important since. Little is made of the landmark ‘Daisy’ Johnson TV campaign broadcast (in which a little girl picking daisies in a field is unexpectedly nuked. It was later parodied on The Simpsons) and ex-actor Ronald Reagan’s career-defining speech in favour of Goldwater is not mentioned at all.

1968

1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since.
The previous election in 1964 already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme side-lined forever by the escalating war. Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.


But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.


At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.

White explores all of the candidates. The short campaign of Bobby Kennedy which would ultimately be a cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Eugene McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.

But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”


There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. This isn’t discussed here (White would not have known about these behind the scenes shenanigans) though at times White does show a great deal of warmth towards Nixon here, something he would probably come to regret later.

1972

By 1972, White’s books were having a political impact in themselves. At one point, we are told the Democratic nominee George McGovern first decided to run for the highest office after being inspired by White’s first Making of the President book back in 1962. The liberal McGovern would go onto be buried in a forty-nine state Nixon landslide. Today, in 2021, both Nixon and McGovern are long gone (McGovern died in 2012, aged 90) but for the first time in these volumes, a clear link can be forged to the present. A number of people mentioned (Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Donald Rumsfeld, even William Calley of My Lai) are still alive, while we know, though it isn’t mentioned here, that the young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first met on the McGovern campaign. Also:

“And J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware of whom it was said had shaken half the right hands in his thirty years in public office, being defeated for the Senate by a young man, Joseph Biden Jr., who would reach the Constitutional Senatorial age of thirty, only a few weeks before he was due to take office.”

No other president in US history was making an impact in public life almost a full half century before they were in the White House. Reagan, after all, was not yet even an actor, 48 years before he became president. Trump, at that stage, was still a spoilt millionaire’s son. Perhaps nothing ever really changed.

Anyway, the shadow of Watergate looms large over the book. The initial summer 1972 break-in seems to have had no real impact on the November election. By the time, White finished the book, it was clearly becoming a major scandal although it was not yet at all obvious that it would ultimately bring down Nixon himself.

This election also spawned Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, from Hunter S. Thompson, a writer far more anti-Nixon and pro-McGovern than White was and indeed, rather fonder of including illustrations in his books.

In truth, you would have to be very, very, very interested in the machinations of the 1970s US Democratic Party indeed to find every page of either this or Thompson’s book wholly riveting. Despite this, it is still tempting to wonder how White might have covered the Ford-Carter contest of 1976 or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. As it is, we should be grateful enough for these four volumes which already tell us so much about a nation which had transformed beyond all recognition in the comparatively short period between 1960 and 1972.

Book review: Four volumes: The Making of the President, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, by Theodore H. White. Published by: Harper Collins.