The term “national treasure” is often bandied around a bit loosely these days. But make no mistake: at eighty, the actress Miriam’ Margolyes is undeniably worthy of the title. As this audiobook version of her autobiography confirms, she is a funny, sensitive and intelligent woman who has led a rich, eventful and rewarding life.
What is she actually most famous for? Well, as she herself admits, when the final curtain eventually falls, many tributes will begin by mentioning that she played Professor of Herbology, Pomora Sprout in two of the Harry Potter films. It is a small role in a star-studded saga which only came to Miriam as she entered her sixties, but such is the nature of the hugely successful franchise that virtually everyone who appeared in them, be they Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith or Robbie Coltrane, is automatically more famous for that than for anything else almost regardless of how busy or successful their career may otherwise have been. As she is not a fan of the series (she has not read any of the books nor seen any of the films, including either of the ones she is in herself) and does not like science fiction or fantasy, she admits this slightly grudgingly although she remains grateful as ever for the work and for being a small part of a story that means so much to so many people and will doubtless continue to be watched for many decades to come.
She has been astonishingly prolific though working consistently on stage, radio, TV and film since she left Cambridge University nearly sixty years’ ago. The Internet Movie Database credits her with 188 roles and while many of these were bit parts or voice only roles but this doesn’t even touch on the numerous radio, theatre and voiceover performances she has delivered and she discusses many of them here. This is a long book but even she cannot mention everything. In 2006, for example, she appeared as Mrs. Midge In one episode of the French and Saunders sitcom, Jam & Jerusalem and provided voices for the characters, Mrs Ashtrakhan and Rita’s Grandma in the high-profile animated films Happy Feet and Flushed Away. But I don’t think any of these roles are mentioned in this autobiography.
She had a run of 1990s Hollywood success. She was the nurse in Baz Luhmann’s Romeo + Juliet, probably the most successful Shakespeare film adaptation ever made. Oddly, one of her abiding memories of this is how smelly the young star, Leonardo DiCaprio was. She was the voice of Fly, the female sheepdog in both the Babe films. She won a BAFTA for her role as Mrs. Mingott in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence.
We have all probably seen and heard her in far more things than we realise. She was one of the most high-profile voiceover actresses of the 1980s. she was the voice of the sexy cartoon bunny on the Cadbury’s Caramel adverts (“Take it easy with Cadbury’s Caramel”). She vividly recreates her sexually suggestive vocal performance on one 1970s tobacco advert. She dubbed most of the female voices for the cult 1970s series, Monkey. I knew her first from Blackadder II where she played Edmund’s puritanical aunt, Lady Whiteadder (a character Margolyes relates who seems to have a curious effect on a certain breed of middle-aged man). I also once saw her on stage in a production of She Stoops To Conquer alongside an unlikely combination of Sir Donald Sinden and David Essex.
But the book’s not all about her career. Margolyes talks seriously and honestly about many things. She talks about her parents, her childhood in Oxford, her university days, her being Jewish, her lesbianism, her pain and regret about her experience of ‘coming out’ to her parents and her lifelong unhappiness with her own appearance. As the name of the book suggests, she is always very honest. She acknowledges her successes (she is especially proud of her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women in which she played a huge number of roles) but admits to her failures both major (cheating on her partner of fifty years) and minor (overreacting to a parking ticket or embarrassing herself when meeting the Queen).
Readers should perhaps be warned about her numerous sexual exploits and perhaps still more surprisingly, her eagerness to discuss them. Although a lesbian, a remarkable number of her anecdotes end with the phrase “and then I sucked him off.” This will doubtless offend some readers or listeners and amuse many more.
In fact, you could actually get very drunk playing a Miriam Margoyles Drinking Game imbibing every time the phrase “sucked off” comes up. Although too her credit, you would get drunker still if you downed a shot every time she ends a description of someone she has met during her life with some variation on the phrase “we remain friends and are still in touch to this day” or “we remained friends until they died.” She values friendship highly and has made and remained friends with many people. She says she has nearly 12,000 names in her phone book and clearly relished getting in touch with many of them to help her remember many of the events detailed in this narrative.
This, of course, suggests she is pleasant and easy to work with. It also adds credibility to her testimony against those who she does dislike who she condemns vigorously. She was treated very badly by Glenda Jackson during a union dispute during a disastrous stage production in the 1970s, singles out the late Terry Scott as a truly awful person and is venomous about the blatant sexism displayed by many of the future Goodies and Monty Pythom team at Footlights during the 1960s.
Some people still don’t like her today, of course, for a variety of reasons namely because she is a woman who talks freely about her sexuality, because she is a lesbian, because she holds left-wing views, because she holds left-wing views but has criticized Jeremy Corbyn’s support for Brexit and failure to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, because she is Jewish and yet has condemned Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians, because she is Jewish full stop, because she is a woman who speaks her mind freely and honestly, because she is an old woman or simply because she is a woman.
This book is not for them. For the rest of us this is a golden opportunity to enjoy a well-told story, which is honest, moving and often very funny about a rich life lived to the full.
The pandemic has turned many comedians into authors.
It’s perfectly understandable. With many of the usual avenues of expression closed off to them, the lockdowns have provided a golden opportunity for many comics with a story to tell to finally put their words on paper. For many, it was either that or start a podcast. Little wonder then that, the Christmas 2021 books market is overflowing with comedy biographies. Harry Hill’s new autobiography is a weightier tome than his previous literary works, Harry Hill’s Whopping Great Joke Book, Harry Hill’s Fun Book or Harry Hill’s Bumper Book of Bloopers. But Fight! is a great read and I’d actually rank it alongside Bob Mortimer’s …And Away! as one of the very best comedy-themed books of the year.
As Harry himself admits, however, he is not for everyone. Chris Tarrant and Keeley Hawes are amongst those famous names who Harry has encountered who have not taken to his unique sense of humour. I myself have often been amazed how even during the long reign of Harry Hill’s TV Burp as one of the most consistently funny shows on British TV of the 2000s, a surprising number of people, many of whom I would have otherwise said had a good sense of humour suddenly became insufferably snooty whenever Harry’s name was mentioned. If you are one of those people, chances are, neither this book or even this review will be for you. Kindly go elsewhere.
For the rest of us, this is a treat, often funny, particularly in its early stages and revealing. Harry, after all, has a story to tell.
Today, with his winged collar, NHS spectacles and distinctly eccentric appearance, Harry Hill’s comic persona although well-established is hard to define. He looks like a middle-aged Bash Street Kid. Back in the 1970s, he was Matthew Hall, a bright young teenager busily engaged in developing smoke bombs and other homemade explosives with his other bored, science-obsessed school friends in rural Kent. “My interest in science was largely a by-product of pyromania” he admits now but it led directly to a medical career, something he abandoned only in the early 1990s as his love for performing live comedy took over. As Harry himself might reflect, “what were the chances of that happening eh?”
His accounts of his medical career make fascinating reading. Although he does not seem to be one of those comedians with an obvious dark side, his experiences as a doctor (including an excruciating sequence in which he makes a hash of informing a young husband that his wife had died unexpectedly) along with the premature deaths of a number of his old friends have obviously given him an appreciation of the fact life his short.
He has also clearly retained a treasure trove of memories and physical relics of his comedy career. It is interesting to learn that he often collaborated with the likes of Alastair McGowan and Stewart Lee in the 1990s: not names one would obviously associate with him now. By the end of the decade, he was a familiar face on Channel 4. Between 2001 and 2012, he enjoyed his biggest ever success with over 160 episodes of ITV’s Saturday evening “sideways look at the week’s television,” TV Burp. The build-up to the show’s commercial breaks during which a staged fight between two often very surreal rivals, incidentally, explains the book’s title. Such showdowns included; “the Archbishop of Canterbury versus the Footballers’ Wives,” “a paw versus a claw” and “who is the best vegetarian: Heather Mills or Hitler?” During the last of these skirmishes, Harry can be clearly heard shouting, “come on, Hitler!”
In the end, the strain of trawling through hours of often terrible TV to find a few nuggets of comedy gold proved too much for Harry and the other writers and the show ended. Nothing else he has done has ever proven quite as successful. Harry proves unafraid to mention his lesser successes, which include Alien Fun Capsule (essentially a less popular version of TV Burp), Harry Hill’s Tea Time (an enjoyable but little seen Sky One show) or the fun but not especially commercial 2013 Harry Hill Movie featuring Julie Walters, Sheridan Smith and pop rock band, The Magic Numbers.
He also does not shy away from mentioning his few outright failures either: these include his short-lived X-Factor-themed musical, I Can’t Sing and disastrous stints presenting Capital Radio, an attempt to revive Matthew Kelly’s Stars In Their Eyes or the filming of a never-aired pilot of an unpromising Beadle’s About style prank show.. That said, his failure to mention anything about the character Professor Branestawm or his sixteen series narrating home video clips show, You’ve Been Framed! (as far as I noticed anyway) is more surprising, however, particularly as neither of these were obvious failures. He’s has a busy life: perhaps he just forgot to mention them?
Ultimately, it is a book and a career to be proud of. Now 57, what does the future hold for the onetime Doctor Matthew Hall?
Well, there’s only one way to find out…
Book review: Fight! – Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, by Harry Hill. Published by: Hodder Studio. Available: now.
The cover of Jimmy Carr’s book (or at least, the cover on the edition I have) shows Jimmy Carr symbolically removing a depressed version of his own face, revealing the more familiar, grinning version of the comedian underneath. The picture illustrates a central theme of the book: how twenty-two years ago, Jimmy transformed himself by abandoning his well-paid but unsatisfactory marketing job at Shell, ultimately becoming the very successful comedian and TV personality we all know today. Carr became, he argues, a much happier person as a result. Here, he argues, you can do the same, not necessarily by becoming a stand-up comedian (a career move which obviously wouldn’t suit everyone) but by identifying what you really want from life and going for it.
In many ways, the cover image would would work just as well if the two faces were reversed. For while the book is by no means deadly serious (on the contrary, there are lots of jokes throughout) this is Jimmy Carr, the host of 8 Out of 10 Cats with a silly laugh, revealing the more serious version of himself. The funny-man is revealing the more serious man behind the mask, not the other way round.
It should be a good read. Whether you personally like him or not, Jimmy Carr is a very clever and successful man with an interesting story to tell. He is perhaps not quite as funny on the page as he is as a performer, but he is not far off it.
Some of the publicity for this book describes it as Carr’s “first autobiography”. It isn’t. And this is the problem. When Carr does open up about his personal life and about his occasional struggles with mental health: his grief over the death of his mother, his hatred for his estranged father, the details of how he established his comedy career, his struggles with dyslexia, his panic attacks on stage, the book is very interesting. But this only goes so far. We learn very little about his childhood or about why he fell out with his father. There is nothing about his recent hair transplant. The book actually takes the form of a self-help book. A self-help book filled with quotations from other people, jokes, swearing and anecdotes from Carr’s own life.
Being a self-help book is not in itself a problem. Jimmy Carr has had a successful life and he wants to help others to be successful too. This is perfectly commendable.
The problem is that while some of his advice is useful much of it sounds like meaningless guff regurgitated from a thousand therapy sessions. He often spends a lot of time saying a lot which amounts to very little. Carr has done well in life and has worked hard for it. Fair enough. But he is almost evangelical in his conviction that his own formula for success can be easily transposed to everyone else.
“No one can beat you at being you…Look at society and ask ‘what am I bringing to the party?…Makes your own choices, just don’t not think about it…You can have anything, but you can’t have everything…When you win, you win, but you lose you learn.” It is often difficult to square banal platitudes such as this with the more cynical persona Jimmy Carr projects on stage and on TV.
In truth, of course, it is just that: a persona. As with other darker comics such as Frankie Boyle, Carr jokes about disability, incest and rape. But this is not him. It is humour and designed to shock.
Even so, I suspect he has a few ethical blind spots. He includes ‘climate change’ on a list of things which we should not worry about as we have no control over them. The arguments in defence of some of his more controversial jokes do not really stand up to scrutiny. He knows better than to attempt to defend his involvement in a tax avoidance scheme before 2012. The scandal came close to destroying his career and he has now paid back all the money he owed. But he has never really explained why he thought it was okay in the first place.
Despite all this, I like Jimmy Carr. I have seen him live and have interviewed him once. Over the last twenty years, he has been one of our best and most consistent comedians. A great biography will probably be published about him one day. But I suspect it won’t be written by him.
Book review: Jimmy Carr – Before & Laughter. A Life-Changing Book. Published by: Quercus Publishing.
Book review: A Class Act, Life as a Working-Class Man in a Middle-Class World, by Rob Beckett. Published by: Harper Collins. Available: now.
Now in his mid-thirties, Rob Beckett is a comedy success story, a popular stand-up, podcaster and a familiar TV face from shows like Mock The Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats and Taskmaster. He is also something of a rarity on the British comedy circuit in that he hails from a genuinely working-class background. This is his story, not a straightforward autobiography but a look at how his life and career have been affected by his past.
Judging by his own (and, indeed, probably many people’s) criteria, Beckett passes what he himself calls, ‘the Working-Class Test’ (perhaps this should be renamed, ‘The Beckett List?) with flying colours. He grew up in south-east London. His father worked as a driver: first driving vans, then petrol tankers, then a London taxi cab, His mum is known as ‘Big Suze’. He spent his 16th birthday at Crayford dog-racing track. He didn’t eat an avocado until he was 31. On the other hand, there is a darker side to all this. At his first ever Parents’ Evening at school, his parents were told straight that “he’s never going to be a high achiever or a high flier.”
Despite this, these experiences have left him not so much angry as conflicted. The book’s cover which shows him smartly dressed and cheerfully enjoying an expensive drink while simultaneously clearly about to tuck into a plate of bangers and mash while seated in a greasy spoon café, comically reflect his mixed feelings. His background has clearly caused him no small measure of awkwardness in the past. After an early comedy success winning a trip to Adelaide after securing the Best Newcomer award at Edinburgh ten years ago, Beckett found himself stuck there with no money left to enjoy the city at all. Later, after being invited to a swanky party hosted by Jimmy Carr he found himself mocked by other guests for arriving with a few cans of beers in a plastic bag. Although he gets on well with his warm and supportive family, he admits to having been occasionally been embarrassed by their behaviour. It’s true, one or two of his issues can be attributed to other things: he recognises he was self-conscious about his weight for many years. A few elements of his parents’ behaviour sound like they might be more to do with general eccentricity or old age than anything else. But he is right to recognise that most of these problems have been down to class.
Today, Rob Beckett recognises he is definitely middle-class himself. His wife is middle-class: for one thing, she had never eaten fried chicken before meeting him. He also recognises his daughters will grow up to be much posher than he is. Occasionally his insecurities return. Most dramatically, it took a near nervous breakdown shortly before lockdown to make him realise his continued success did not depend on him taking literally every job he was offered. Even as a successful comedian who had been commissioned to write this book, he admits it took him a while to realise he wasn’t being needlessly financially reckless to even consider buying himself a new laptop rather than awkwardly sharing the computer his wife was using to home school the children during lockdown.
He frequently seems amazed he is writing a book at all. And no wonder. His father didn’t even read a book until he was 43. The book in question was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, in fact, written by Sue Townsend, a woman from a far poorer background than the Becketts.
Like her, Rob Beckett has come a very long way from where he started out from. But then, perhaps not so far, at the same time.
The year is 1998 and Clive Hapgood is an overworked History teacher in a small public school in this debut novel from the talented comedian and actor, Miles Jupp.
Clive is 38, but looks older. His hair greying and a bald patch is developing after years of struggling to juggle the demands of a headmaster who takes advantage of him every chance he gets and a busy, stressful home life dominated by his wife and two young daughters.
Jupp is a good writer and creates a vivid portrait of both the minutiae of Clive’s desperately overburdened existence at Frampton School and the horrors of a family holiday in Normandy.
Already a proven talent in other fields, Jupp proves his authorial credentials in a novel which contains some similarities to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.
Josh Widdicombe must be one of the busiest comedians working in Britain today. In the week before I wrote this review, I am aware that he has been on Who Do You Think You Are?, the newly-revived Blankety Blank and, as always, alongside Adam Hills and Alex Brooker on Channel 4’s Friday night hit, The Last Leg. And that’s without me even checking properly: goodness knows how many times he’s cropped up on Dave in that time, perhaps on a repeat of his own panel show, Hypothetical or on an old episode of Taskmaster.
This book isn’t a full-blown autobiography, however. It is the story of Josh’s youth growing up in Dartmoor as told through the TV he watched, specifically during the decade of the 1990s. As someone who watched a lot of TV myself during this period (and who still does), this format is very appealing to me. Many of the shows Josh watched were the ones I watched too. Josh can at least justify his childhood TV addiction on the grounds that he grew up in a remote sparsely populated area of Devon. I, however, grew up in Peterborough: not exactly a hub of culture but a busy enough, populous (new) town. What was my excuse?
Anyway, Josh begins by discussing Gus Honeybun, a regional ITV children’s puppet famous to anyone growing up in the south-west of England at almost any point during the last four decades of the 20th century but wholly unfamiliar to me and the vast silent majority of the world who grew up anywhere else. The only reason I’d ever heard of Gus before at all, is because I moved to Devon when in my twenties in the 2000s (presumably the exact opposite of what Josh himself did) and have had people talk to me about this great, mythical, winking TV birthday bunny since. Any young viewers who, like myself, grew up in the area covered by the Anglia ITV franchise were lumbered with a frenzied waving TV puppet called ‘B.C.’ during this period. ‘B.C.’ stood for ‘Birthday Club’ which was also not entirely accidentally, the name of the short segments of TV, ‘B.C.’ himself appeared on, often with Norwich-based presenter, Helen McDermott. Unlike Gus Honeybun whose identity was entirely unambiguous, I am genuinely unsure what animal ‘B.C.’ was supposed to be. Some sort of wildcat? Perhaps a leopard? Maybe even a giraffe? He doesn’t really look anything like either of these. Occasionally, ‘B.C.’ would be absent because “he’s on his holidays today” (translation: he’s in the washing machine). At any rate, as with the solar eclipse of August 1999, I suspect the south-west got the best of it here. ‘B.C.’ may as well have stood for “Bored Children.”
Anyway, this is only one of many items on TV discussed here. Others include:
Neighbours: Like Josh, I too, was a huge fan of the Australian soap for a fairly short period. However, I am over six years older than him (he was born in 1983, I was born at the end of 1976) and here it really shows. I’d largely lost interest by the time he got into it. Despite us both remembering Todd Landers being run over, there is little cross-over (he doesn’t mention ‘Plain Jane Super Brain’ or Dr. Clive Gibbons at all). His discussion of a horrendously racist 1996 storyline in which the character Julie Martin accuses her new Chinese neighbours of killing and barbecuing her missing dog is grimly fascinating though. As is the ‘Big Break’ chapter which details just some of the horrors of Jim Davidson’s career.
Ghostwatch: Unlike Josh (and many others) I never thought this notorious dramatized ‘live broadcast from a real haunted house’ was actually real. Although as he points out, knowing it isn’t real does nothing to diminish just how terrifying to watch it is even today. Or brilliantly made. Even the bit where Michael Parkinson gets possessed.
The Simpsons and I’m Alan Partridge: These chapters are essentially songs of praise about the brilliance of 1990s TV comedy. I am in full agreement.
GamesMaster: I watched it too. And, happily, Josh’s household was so far behind that his memories of 1990s computer games sit happily with my memories of 1980s ones.
In short, I loved the book and would highly recommend it. I agree wholeheartedly with him about some things: Election ’97 was a joyous and memorable night. The death of Diana was a genuinely tragic and shocking event but by time of her funeral had descended into a distasteful grief-fest which much of the population (myself and Josh himself included) felt wholly isolated from.
I disagree with him about other things. The Spice Girls certainly were not “the greatest pop band of all time.” And on points of factual accuracy: nobody ever died of a drug overdose on Grange Hill (Zammo, the school heroin addict never died while Danny Kendall’s death in the series was not drug-related). And Tony Blair famously never once sent an email while in Downing Street.
There was too much football talk in the book for me, but for this he cannot be faulted. He was and is a football fan. It would be unreasonable not to expect him to discuss it. In truth, I could have written a far longer review than this one.
There are chapters on many 1990s TV shows here, amongst them, Gladiators, Badger Girl, Knightmare, You Bet!, TFI Friday, 999, The X-Files and Eldorado. There are no chapters on Twin Peaks, Our Friends in the North, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse, Cracker or Queer as Folk. But so what? There are no chapters on Baywatch, Hollyoaks, The Darling Buds of May, Friends, Byker Grove, South Park or Sweet Valley High either. You cannot write about everything.
Who does he think he is? Josh Widdicombe is a fine comic writer and as Adam Hills would put it, “the pride of Dartmoor.”
WRITTEN BY: CHRIS HALLAM. FIRST PUBLISHED IN GEEKY MONKEY MAGAZINE IN 2017
From Batman to Beetlejuice and Big Fish to Big Eyes, Tim Burton’s unique movie combinations of fantasy, sentimentality and horror have illuminated our cinema screens for over thirty years now. But with nearly twenty full length films under his belt and Burton himself approaching his sixties, how long can the magic continue?
WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM: TRY SAYING HIS NAME THREE TIMES IN FRONT OF A MIRROR AND SEE WHAT HAPPENS (BASICALLY NOTHING)
Almost nothing about Tim Burton career makes any sense.
Consider: much of his appeal rests in part on the maverick oddball nature of his work. The release of a new Tim Burton film is an event, with many people eagerly making a point of seeing everything he does. He is hip in a way neither Disney or Pixar could never be.
Yet, In reality, his reputation as an outsider seems odd. He has never been an obscure or unpopular director. His films nearly always do very well at the box office and always have done. He is currently ranked seventh on the list of the biggest grossing directors in Hollywood. Indeed, partly thanks to his outlandish Edward Scissorhands-like appearance is probably more recognisable than any of the other six with the possible exceptions of Steven Spielberg and onetime Happy Days star Ron Howard.
The world isn’t supposed to be like this. Offbeat, funny looking directors with unhappy childhood memories might direct one or two cult classics but that’s usually about it. Burton has directed hit after hit after hit for years and years and years. He has directed a film more or less every other year since the mid-Eighties.
At a time in which Hollywood has often been often accused of lacking inspiration and originality, Burton has frequently demonstrated he has both in droves. Although it’s true, he usually doesn’t write his own screenplays (Edward Scissorhands being an exception), Burton has always drawn far and wide for his sources of inspiration. The visual look of his films is frequently remarkable with impressive visuals even on his worst films like Planet of the Apes (2001) and Alice in Wonderland (2010).
Most of us will probably now feel we have our own preconceived notions of what to expect from a Tim Burton film. Yet really we have no idea what to expect. Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children (2016), for example is nothing like his previous film, Big Eyes (2014) nor is that like and Frankenweenie (2012) and so on. There is really no good trying to guess what he might do next. Although it might be worth placing a bet that Jonny Depp will be in it.
For all his success – his combined grosses have exceeded those of George Lucas, J.J. Abrams or any of the Harry Potter directors – there seems little logical about how Burton’s films have performed at the box office. Alice In Wonderland (2010) for example, is far from Burton’s best film but it is by some way his biggest grossing blockbuster. His Planet of the Apes (2001) is also one of Burton’s biggest grossing films but might actually be his worst. Other much better films such as Ed Wood (1995), meanwhile, came close to flopping entirely,
Another oddity is the lack of correlation between Burton’s critical success and Oscar recognition. Generally speaking, with the notable exceptions of Planet of the Apes, Dark Shadows, Alice in Wonderland and Mars Attacks! all of Burton’s films have been well received by the critics, often overwhelmingly so. Yet not one Tim Burton film has ever received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture. Two of his films, The Corpse Bride (2005) and Frankenweenie (2012) have received Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature, but that’s it. Even allowing for the Academy’s traditional antipathy towards sci-fi and fantasy (nearly all of Burton’s films could be defined as the latter), this oversight seems surprising.
In short, screenwriter William Goldman’s old adage that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything” seems truer than ever when applied to the career of Tim Burton.
Burton’s feelings of being an outsider are not an act. Despite being born to apparently “hypernormal” parents in Burbank, California in 1958, he felt lonely and retreated into a fantasy world of his own imagination from an early age.
“When you don’t have many friends,” he later mused of his early life. “You’re at a distance from the rest of society, you’re kind of looking out of a window…But there’s enough weird movies out there so you can go a long time without friends”.
Burton later played homage to the B-movie horror movies of his youth in films like Ed Wood and Frankenweenie. Soon he was making as well as watching films. One such animation Stalk of the Celery Monster (1979) attracted the attention of Disney.
Paul A. Woods has written that “though he has sometimes dumped derision on the Disney name (Burton) is also a child of Uncle Walt,” and it is certainly true that while often a frustrating period for him, his years at Disney producing short dark films like Vincent and the later remade Frankenweenie were crucial towards the evolution of the unique combination of sentimentality and gothic horror which became Burton’s trademark. That said, by the mid-Eighties, he had left Disney and was directing his first full length feature film.
British audiences have never entirely “got” Pee-wee Herman. A children’s character created and played by Paul Reubens, he was never popular in the UK, his status later overshadowed by Reubens’ 1991 arrest for indecent exposure at an adult cinema where he was “enjoying” the film Nancy Nurse Turns Up The Heat. Reubens has since come back even recently resurrecting the Pee-wee character. Burton was generous to the disgraced Reubens even during his difficult period, giving him roles in Batman Returns (1992) and The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993).
But all this was in the future. Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985) was a far from inauspicious debut for Burton proving a critical hit and making an impressive $40 million on as budget of $7 million. But it would be Tim Burton’s next film which would see his distinctive style really coming to the fore for the first time.
Beetlejuice (1988) was an unusual film by any standard. For one thing, the two likeable young romantic leads (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) are killed off in the first ten minutes, the star (Michael Keaton) has only eighteen minutes of screen time, for another. It is also contains a surprising number of moments of horror for a PG rated comedy. The waiting room scene, for example, features a scuba diver with his leg still down the throat of a shark and a chain smoker who appears to have burnt to as cinder after an accident while smoking in bed.
Beetlejuice was almost a horror film and occasionally it shows. It was also a glorious success and launched Burton further along an impressive directorial career which continues to this day.
Though none of his films are full blown horrors, this dark element is a regular feature of Burton’s work. Though sentimental, the title character of Edward Scissorhands (1991) certainly looks he should be a horror character and seems like a Frankenstein’s monster stitched together by a creator played by Vincent Price. The casting of the horror legend (in fact, in his final role) is no coincidence, of course. The late Christopher Lee another horror iconic movie veteran also appeared in five Burton films. Sleepy Hollow (the first of Lee’s Burton appearances) based on Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the tale of the headless horseman is closer to being a horror than any of Burton’s other works, while the animations The Nightmare Before Christmas (in fact, directed by Henry Selick) and The Corpse Bride as well as the live action Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children all contain unsettling elements which expose Burton’s love of horror.
Appearing in nine of his films to date, Johnny Depp has become synonymous with Burton’s work. Though as a famously good looking film star, Depp has proven a good fit for Burton’s out of kilter world view, effectively becoming Robert De Niro (or, if you prefer) Leonardo DiCaprio to Tim Burton’s Martin Scorsese. Burton’s former partner Helena Bonham Carter has also been a regular collaborator appearing in seven of his films since the start of the 21st century.
If there was a point where Burton might have been expected to have “sold out” it was with Batman (1989). Having enjoyed early successes, one would have expected being given the reins to Warner Brothers’ massive superhero franchise would have crushed any independent spirit out of him, like hiring Orson Welles to direct Star Wars or perhaps more aptly hiring David Lynch to direct Dune. But instead Burton did what all the best directors do, making Batman a hit while clearly marking his own independent stamp on the end product. He also produced a film that was considerably darker than any superhero film Eighties cinema audiences were used to. In Batman Returns (1992) Burton produced a sequel, still darker, weirder and more Burton-esque than what had gone before.
WHEN BURTON GOES BAD
Every director has a few turkeys in their closet but in truth, Tim Burton has far fewer than most. Even where his films have gone down badly, the record is so mixed it’s hard to write them off completely as total flops.
In 1995, after a decade of spectacular directorial success, Burton experienced his biggest ever box office failure with his biopic of Ed Wood. Wood, played by Johnny Depp, was notoriously “the worst film director ever” behind such cinematic monstrosities as Plan 9 From Outer Space. Burton himself chose to take the experience as a salutary lesson: “Any of my movies could go either way, they really could, and so the line between success is a very thin one,” he said. “Who knows, I could become Ed Wood tomorrow.”
But in truth, Ed Wood is a fine film and well-reviewed at the time. Martin Landau even won an Oscar for his portrayal of the has been horror legend Bela Lugosi, the only acting performance in a Burton film to ever receive one. Perhaps audiences were simply put off by it being in black and white.
“Hi Jack: loved you in Mars Attacks!” joked the late Robin Williams to Jack Nicholson at an award ceremony. This was funny, of course, because supposedly Tim Burton’s sci-fi comedy was so awful, Burton’s first major flop (Ed Wood, had at least, been cheap to make) and surely a source of embarrassment to Nicholson who had taken two roles in it. At least, that’s the story.
In reality, Mars Attacks! (1996) is Burton’s most divisive film, sitting in odd comparison to the much duller but much more successful box office smash Independence Day which was released at about the same time and which it comes across almost as a direct spoof of, even though it isn’t. Speaking personally, I and the mostly student audience I saw it with in Aberystwyth laughed our heads off at it and many people love Mars Attacks! to this day. I would suspect it went down better in the UK than in the US. But lots more people seem not to and on reflection it is perhaps a bit of a mess. “Often what I think is funny, other people don’t find funny,” Burton admits, perhaps explaining why few of his other films have been pitched as full-blown comedies.
Less equivocation is needed in summarising Burton’s “reimagining” of Planet of the Apes (2001). Tim Roth gives a good villainous (unrecognisable) performance. Most of the make-up is decent and Danny Elfman’s score is fine. But that’s it as far as good points go: the film is otherwise irredeemably horrendously dreadful. One wonders what the hell Burton was thinking.
It’s not actually just that the Planet of the Apes suffers by comparison with the 1968 version of the story. Even if you don’t like Franklin J. Schaffner’s earlier film (which despite it’s marvellous ending does rather go on a bit), Burton’s film is still awful, hampered by a weak lead performance (Mark Wahlberg), a botched and doomed attempt to make Helena Bonham Carter’s ape more attractive than the others (moral: apes are generally only attractive to other apes), a dreadful script and an ending which makes no bloody sense whatsoever. It is Burton’s worst film. Ten years later, Rupert Wyatt made the far superior reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) perhsaps rubbing salt into the wound. But against all the odds, The Apes of Roth proved a hit. Critically mauled, Burton’s film was nevertheless the ninth biggest movie at the box office of 2001.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2006) was another hit but many feel it is unbalanced by Johnny Depp’s overly sinister portrayal of Willy Wonka (a performance reportedly based on Michael Jackson). Comparing Willies can be a controversial game but most viewers seem to prefer the late Gene Wilder’s Wonka from the 1971 version of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s story. Alice In Wonderland (2010) is also something of a mess and generally overuses CGI, yet it too was a big hit: indeed Burton’s biggest hit to date.
Only one film in fact Dark Shadows (2012) based on an obscure US TV series of the Sixties and Seventies about a darkly gothic family, constitutes both a commercial and critical flop. With Burton having directed nearly twenty films to date his really isn’t a bad record.
And truth, be told, even Dark Shadows isn’t all that bad.
Ultimately, probably the worst that could be said of Tim Burton is that while he has undoubtedly produced an impressive overall body of work, it is harder to identify an individual movie of his which is universally revered as a truly great film. For what it’s worth at the time of writing, not one of Burton’s films ranks in IMDB’s 250 Top Rated Movies. This might also explain why none of his films have yet received any Best Picture nominations. It could also simply be that his films are too offbeat for the Academy.
This is to dwell on the negative, however. Tim Burton’s career has been a magical glorious success. Burton turns sixty next year and we can only hope he continues to direct with such aplomb as he approaches old age.
For let us picture the following: Beetlejuice smiling malevolently as Lydia (Winona Ryder) says his name a third time. The mournful look on the face of Edward Scissorhands. The young Edward Bloom (Ewan MacGregor) looking up to Karl the giant (the late Matthew McGrory) in Big Fish. The Caped Crusader confronting the Joker. A Martian invader gleefully vaporising more victims. The macabre humour of Sweeney Todd.
The fact that there are simply too many good Tim Burton films to discuss here is testament to his brilliance in itself.
THE BURTON FACTOR
Which Tim Burton film is the most Burtonesque of them all? Watch as our unscientific survey settles the matter once and for all. And remember, the final score is based on how ‘Burtonesque’ the film is: not how good it is. So there!
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: No. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No. Summary: Generally ore of a Pee-wee Herman film than a Tim Burton one although some Burton trademarks are already in place. Burton Factor: 4.
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Yes: Michael Keaton, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara. Is it animated?: Mostly not. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Fairly. Summary: The distinctive blend of comedy and humour is already there. Burton Factor: 9.
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson. Is it animated?: No. Musical? Well, aside from Prince. Funny?: A little. Scary?: Slightly. Summary: Gentlemen! Let’s broaden our minds! Tim retains his credentials even when going all blockbustery on us. Burton Factor: 8.
Edward Scissorhands (1991)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Johnny Depp, Winona Ryder. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Scary?: Ish .Summary: The essence of Burton. He even looks a bit like him. Burton Factor: 10.
Batman Returns (1992)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Michael Keaton. Michael Gough is also in this and a few others. Christopher Walken and Danny DeVito also return later. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny/Scary?: A bit of both. Summary: Batman + 10% added Burton. Burton Factor: 9.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Catherine O’Hara, Paul Reubens and Danny Elfman. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Kinda. Summary: What’s this? The most Burton-esque film of them all and he didn’t even direct it! Burton Factor: 10.
Ed Wood (1994)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Johnny Depp, Sarah Jessica Parker, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No, despite gothic elements. Summary: An enjoyable homage but none of the usual fantasy elements. Burton Factor: 6.
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: DeVito and Nicholson return from Gotham, Sarah Jessica Parker. But most of the large cast are non-Burtonites. Is it animated?: Partly. Musical?: When I’m Calling You Oooo-oooo. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: No Summary: A bit of an odd one even by Burton’s standards. Burton Factor: 6.
Sleepy Hollow (1999)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Michael Gough, Walken, Jeffrey Jones. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: Yes. Summary: It seems odd that this is the only one with Christina Ricci in. It sort of feels like she should be in all of them. Burton Factor: 7.
Planet of the Apes (2001)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Helena Bonham Carter. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Not intentionally. Scary?: No. Summary: More sci-fi than most Burton efforts. Also: RUBBISH. Burton Factor: 4.
Big Fish (2003)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Bonham Carter, Deep Roy, Danny De Vito. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Not really. Scary?: No. Summary: Moderately Burtonesque. Burton Factor: 6.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Intended to be. Scary?: No. Summary: Ingredients: 50% Dahl. 50% Burton. Burton Factor: 7.
The Corpse Bride (2005)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee, Deep Roy. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: A bit. Scary?: Creepy. Summary: A Nightmare Before Christmas One and a Half. Burton Factor: 8.
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No, all Stephen Sondheim. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp, Bonham Carter. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: Yes. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Gory. Summary: A good choice for Tim B. Burton Factor: 8.
Alice In Wonderland (2010)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: Depp and Bonham Carter, Christopher Lee. Is it animated?: Lots of CGI. Musical?: No. Funny?: A little. Scary?: No. Summary. Burton’s biggest hit. Curiouser and curiouser… Burton Factor: 8.
Dark Shadows (2012)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Any Burton regulars in it?: Depp and Bonham Carter in their fifth Burton film together in a row. Eva Green. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: Scary?: A bit. Summary: Burtonesque, certainly, although the formula seems less potent than usual. Burton Factor: 7.
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes Are any Burton regulars in it?: Quite a few on voices including Winona Ryder. Is it animated?: Yes. Musical?: No. Funny?: Yes. Scary?: Eerie, yes Summary: Resurrected from the age of Burton past. Burton Factor: 8.
Big Eyes (2014)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: Yes. Are any Burton regulars in it?: No. Is it animated?: Mostly not. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: No. Summary/rating: With very little fantasy element at all, you might easily not notice who the director is. Burton Factor: 2.
Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children (2016)
Did Danny Elfman do the score?: No. Are any major Burton regulars in it?: Eva Green. Is it animated?: No. Musical?: No. Funny?: No. Scary?: Yes. Summary/rating: Burton fans will recognise the mixture of childhood fantasy and horror. Burton Factor: 7.
THE ELFMAN COMETH…
He is the Elfman, or rather Danny Elfman. Ten things you may not have known about Tim Burton’s favourite composer…
Elfman has scored all but three of Tim Burton’s eighteen studio releases to date.
The exceptions were: a) Sweeney Todd, which is based on a musical by Stephen Sondheim. b) Miss Peregrine’s School For Unusual Children, was scored by Matthew Margeson and Mike Higham as Elfman had a scheduling conflict due to scoring Alice Through The Looking Glass, James Bobin’s sequel to Burton’s own Alice film. c) Ed Wood: Howard Shore scored this one as Elfman and Burton had briefly fallen out.
Danny Elfman provided the singing voice for Jack Skellingon in The Nightmare Before Christmas. He also voiced Bonejangles in The Corpse Bride and the Oompa Lumpas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
He used to be in a rock band called Oingo Boingo. In recent years, he has complained of hearing loss as a result. He is 63.
He composed the iconic TV themes for The Simpsons and Desperate Housewives.
He has composed loads of film scores for many other films too amongst them Nightbreed, the Men In Black and Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, Oz The Great and the Powerful, The Girl On The Train and many many more.
January: (Progs 557/558): Nemesis Book 7 The Two Torquemadas ends (Pat Mills/John Hickleton) ends and is followed immediately by Book 8: Purity’s Story (Mills/David Roach).
(Progs 558-559): Zenith returns in a two-episode interlude (Grant Morrison/Steve Yeowell).
February: (Prog 560): Strontium Dog returns in Stone Killers (Grant/Ezquerra).
(Prog 561): First Hap Hazard (Steve Dillon).
March: (Prog 566): First Tyranny Rex (John Smith/Steve Dillon).
Flux, John Brosnan’s occasional movies feature first appears.
April: (Prog 568): Rogue Trooper is back in Hit (Simon Geller/Steve Dillon).
(Prog 570): Dredd Mega-epic Oz comes to an end.
(Prog 571): Luke Kirby debuts in the unusual (but great) 2000AD strip, Summer Magic (Alan McKenzie/John Ridgway).
May: (Prog 573): After ten years, Carlos Ezquerra draws his last Strontium Dog (he returns to it much later).
(Prog 576): Bad Company II: The Krool Heart begins (Peter Milligan/Brett Ewins/Jim McCarthy) begins.
July: (Prog 581): ABC Warriors adventure, The Black Hole ends (Mills/Simon Bisley/SMS).
(Prog 585) Peter Milligan’s Tribal Memories begins.
First ever Judge Dredd Mega-Special is published.
August: (Prog 586): Nemesis, Book 9: Deathbringer (Mills/Hickleton).
(Prog 589): New look: 2000AD cover goes all glossy and shiny! Four colour pages are added – the second episode of Judge Dredd: Twister (art by John Ridgway) now goes into full colour after being black and white for part one (a Wizard of Oz reference). Zenith returns and Slaine The King begins properly (Pat Mills/Glenn Fabry). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cover price rises to 35p.
November: Prog 600! Strontium Dog: The Final Solution begins (Alan Grant/Simon Harrison).
(Prog 601): Special one-off Bad Company story, Simply. Art is produced in four and half hours by Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy to raise money for charity.
The first ever 2000AD Winter Special is published. It includes new adventures for Dredd, Anderson, Zenith, Strontium Dog and Summer Magic’s Luke Kirby and an Alan Moore scripted Rogue Trooper reprinted from the 2000AD annual 1984.
Transvision Vamp release a song, ‘Hanging With Halo Jones.’
January: War comic Battle (est: 1974) merges into The Eagle.
February: Robocop goes on general release in the UK.
Comedy sci-fi Red Dwarf debuts on BBC Two. It’s arrival is almost entirely unnoticed.
March: Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman graphic novel, The Killing Joke is published.
Rob Reiner’s movie fantasy, The Princess Bride is released. Now a much-loved classic, it flops on its original release.
May: Starship Troopers author, Robert E. Heinlein dies, aged eighty.
July: Japanese anime, Akira is released in Japan (in UK in 1991).
September: Crisis, a new fortnightly comic begins. It aims to be e political and slightly more mature version of 2000AD. Early stories include Third World War (Mills/Ezquerra) and The New Statesmen (John Smith/Jim Baikie). The comic runs for 63 issues before folding in 1991.
Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi movie, The Running Man is released in the UK.
October: Deadline, a monthly comic/magazine is launched. Unlike Crisis, it is not directly connected to 2000AD but is started by 2000AD artists, Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins. A fun combination of comic stories and articles, Deadline continues until 1995. The story, Tank Girl is a major success, later spawning a feature film and launching the career of young Jamie Hewlett, future co-creator of virtual band, Gorillaz with Blur’s Damon Albarn.
Charles Dance genetic engineering drama, First Born arrives on BBC One.
Another science-fiction comic, Wildcat is launched. It survives for only twelve issues, ending in March 1989.
December: Fantasy film, Willow is released in the UK. It flops.
Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines and websites including The Companion, Yours Retro, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle, Metalzoic and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In the past, he wrote for Metro.co.uk, Radio Times, DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He also provided all the written content for the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars as well as for sections of the 2014 South Park annual and all the 2015 Transformers annual.
It was the TV version which got me first. Yes, I know this isn’t what I’m supposed to say. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was, first and foremost, a radio series. It was here Douglas Adams first introduced us to Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect, Marvin, life, the universe and everything and all the rest back in 1978. In fairness, as I was less than two years old then, I think I can be excused for not tuning in on the opening night. However, yes, I am fully aware that it was original I should have come to first, not the TV re-tread. But, to be honest, I was never a big radio listener as a child or even now really. It was thus inevitable I’d find it on TV first, after glimpsing a tantalising extract of a sequence about Vogons on Noel Edmonds’ Telly Addicts first. The series itself was a repeat showing. I was again (probably) too young for the original screening when I was just four in 1981, particularly as my younger brother seems to have been born virtually simultaneous to the broadcast of the first episode. I was nine years old by 1986. And while, I know, the TV version has its critics, it remains one of the greatest viewing experiences of my life. Why? Well, let’s begin at the beginning. The title sequence is brief but strangely brilliant. There’s just something wonderful about the use of The Eagles’ Journey of the Sorcerer. Check out the full version on You Tube. To be honest, I think the way it is used very sparingly as the theme tune to both the show on radio and TV works much better than the full-length version which to me sounds overlong and overindulgent. Why is there an astronaut floating around in the titles when there aren’t any in the actual series? I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. I still like it. Then there’s the late Peter Jones’ masterful narration. A clever trick is how the narrative of Adams’ overall story is cleverly merged with that of the contents of the book, that is The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the book within the book. And Jones did a great job. Even Stephen Fry, a real-life friend of Adams, couldn’t really compete in the film version.
Then there’s the book itself! So marvellously realised on screen, it still looks great today, thirty-six years later. If there is anything better in existence than the Babel fish sequence, I am not aware of it. And the book. A portable digital source of information? Remind you of anything? You probably have something very similar in your pocket right now. Then, there’s the cast. With the exception of the excellent (and still very prolific) Geoff McGivern who was replaced by the equally wonderful (but for some reason, far less prolific) David Dixon as incognito visitor from Betelgeuse Ford Prefect and the late Susan Sheridan who was replaced by Sandra Dickinson in the perhaps underwritten role of Trillian, the main cast were mostly drawn from the original radio series too. And while Martin Freeman did a reasonable job as the hapless Arthur Dent in the 2005 film version, for me, Arthur Dent will always be the exasperated but well-mannered version played by the wonderful Simon Jones. The series is not perfect, of course. The terrible prosthetic on Zaphod Beeblebrox (played by Mark Wing-Davey, son of the late Anna Wing, best known for playing EastEnders matriarch Lou Beale) proves definitively that two heads are not always better than one.
The story also fizzles out somewhat. There was talk of a second series which never came but in truth a narrative arc was never the greatest strength of a story originally conceived as a weekly serial by an overworked twentysomething Douglas Adams. There are other quibbles. Marvin, the paranoid android, who gave his name to a Radiohead track isn’t strictly speaking paranoid. But again, who cares? Forty-two. So long and thanks for all the fish. Don’t panic. Life, the universe and everything. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I would argue the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series in whatever form it takes, has injected more memorable phrases into the English language than anything else in the past fifty years.
THE WIT AND WISDOM OF DOUGLAS ADAMS (1952-2001)
“Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.”
“Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.”
“I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don’t know the answer.”
(On religion): “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”
“Reality is frequently inaccurate.”
“The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t.”
“I’d far rather be happy than right any day.”
“All opinions are not equal. Some are a very great deal more robust, sophisticated and well supported in logic and argument than others.”
“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”
“It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on earth has ever produced the expression, ‘As pretty as an airport.”
He was born, got drafted, sang the blues, got his revenge, saved the world, ran for president, went to Hell and joined the circus. Chris Hallam takes a look at the many ups and downs of “Slippery Jim” diGriz, AKA The Stainless Steel Rat…
DAY OF THE RAT
It began as two short stories, The Stainless Steel Rat (1957) and the Misplaced Battleship (1960). Their author, Connecticut-born World War II veteran Harry Harrison, then in his thirties, had a long history as a writer of comics and short stories, but was on the verge of becoming a full-time novelist. In 1961, he expanded the two stories into his second full-length novel, The Stainless Steel Rat.
The book established the essentials which would characterise the series over the next half century. The book is essentially the tale of James Bolivar “Slippery Jim” diGriz, a professional thief living in the distant future. Providing his own narrative, diGriz views himself as a “rat” within the otherwise flawless pristine high technology stainless steel environment of his time. Despite this, he is not wholly without morals and has a strict code of ethics regarding not injuring or killing anyone in the course of his work. He also has a rather romantic Robin Hood-style approach to his duties, generally targeting major corporations as targets for his own crimes. Like any ‘rat’, however, he has had to do what he can to adapt to his situation and survive.
Ironically, just as we meet him, diGriz becomes unstuck, however, and he is captured and recruited by an anti-crime organisation called the Special Corps. Dedicated to putting the principle “use a thief to catch a thief” into practice, the Corps persuade diGriz to do their bidding. diGriz, keen to avoid a prison sentence, reluctantly agrees.
His first mission concerns an investigation into the construction of a battleship. With war eradicated, having been recognised as ridiculously impractical and expensive in the future, the Corps are completely mystified as to why any planet would need to be developing a warship in the first place. diGriz investigates it. In the course of his adventure, he encounters Harold Inskipp, the director of the Corps, once a notorious criminal himself and Professor Coypu, the Corps head scientist, who like Q in the James Bond saga, has a penchant for ingenious gadgetry. As with Bond (the films of which, this first book predates) gadgets and disguises play a recurrent role in the Stainless Steel Rat.
Jim also meets another crucial figure in this first adventure, the feisty Angelina, another (largely) reformed criminal who retains residual psychotic tendencies but who ultimately becomes his wife. In The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970) the couple have two twin sons, James and Bolivar diGriz, both named, with a touch of ego, after their father, James Bolivar diGriz.
RISE OF THE RAT
Harrison then had a busy Sixties spent establishing himself as a novelist. He completed the three books of the Deathworld trilogy, which would later be expanded further. He wrote Bill The Galactic Hero, a humorous riposte to the ultra-conservative science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers. He wrote the overpopulation saga, Make Room! Make Room! which was later made into the Charlton Heston film, Soylent Green in 1973. He wrote other books too.
From 1960 onwards, he would in fact produce on average of more than one novel a year for every one of the remaining fifty-two years of his life.
But it wasn’t until 1970, that he returned to Slippery Jim diGriz. The next decade saw the Stainless Steel Rat become a full-blown book series as Jim underwent numerous adventures.
The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970) has a now rather dated sounding slightly Carry On film style storyline as the newly domesticated Jim is forced to team up with a tribe of beautiful sexually liberated Amazon women who are humanity’s last best hope against an interstellar war being launched by the Grey Men of the Planet Cliaand.
The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (1972), meanwhile, sees diGriz forced to use a time helix to travel back to the 1970s (not 1984 as some blurbs claim) after certain people including Angelina and their two infant sons are suddenly erased out of existence. An enjoyable adventure sees our hero falling in with some Hell’s Angels and even witnessing a high technology version of the Napoleonic Wars in early 19th century England which the wrong side seem to be winning.
The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! (1978) sees diGriz facing twin challenges from the Internal and External Revenue Service and a crop of alien invaders hell-bound on overrunning the galaxy.
The Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982) meanwhile sees Jim and Angelina drawn into an election against a corrupt South American style dictator after investigating a murder. Time is clearly moving on by this point as Jim and Angelina’s sons, James and Bolivar are, by now growing into young men.
MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
One feature occasionally referred to in the books is diGriz’s society’s utter fluency in the real life language of Esperanto. This in fact reflected Harrison’s own enthusiasm for the language. Speaking in Brighton in 1987, he said:
“The Esperanto movement is international, it breeds international co-operation… it was virtually wiped out during the war – the Nazis were against it, the Stalinists were against it, and the Americans were totally indifferent! I kid you not! The world knows no bounds. I have a great interest in languages, as well as in science fiction, and the two of them finally met in The Stainless Steel Rat books.”
Today it is believed up to two million people worldwide, to varying degrees, speak Esperanto. This is somewhere below the levels envisaged by Harrison. But then, The Stainless Steel Rat books are set in the 346th century, so there is still plenty of time.
THE COMIC STRIP PRESENTS…
In 1979, it was decided to adapt the Stainless Steel Rat for the new-ish British science fiction comic, 2000AD. Although Harrison actually had some experience in comics himself, scripting duties went to the comic’s founding editor Kelvin Gosnell. Spanish-born artist Carlos Ezquerra, a major figure in the creation of 2000AD legends, Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog was tasked with bringing the first book to life on the page. The story was a success, the combination of sci-fi, dry humour and action, fitting in well in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Harrison himself expressed his support with a letter to Tharg’s Nerve Centre (it is unclear what he spent the resulting £3 prize money on) and Ezquerra’s visuals were well received. He gave Angelina, a suitably fiery Latin-style temperament. Many felt Ezquerra’s version of diGriz owed something to the Hollywood actor, James Coburn.
A sequel soon followed, 2000AD skipping over the sexist second book and moving straight onto the third, the time travelling Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World which ran in 1979 and 1980. After some hiatus, Gosnell (now no longer 2000AD’s editor) and Ezquerra returned with the third and perhaps best of the three comic adaptations, The Stainless Steel Rat For President which coincided neatly with Ronald Reagan’s re-election as US president in 1984, running into 1985.
Given the success of the series which managed to be both generally faithful to the original books but still entertaining, it’s surprising 2000AD never attempted to adapt any of the other books. Indeed, the three stories remain the sole example of any straightforward book to comic adaptation in the comic’s forty-one-year history thus far.
Today, we are probably rather overfamiliar with the concept of the prequel. Yet in 1985, Harry Harrison’s decision to explore the early days of the adolescent Jim diGriz’s burgeoning criminal career, particularly his tutelage by his mentor, known only as the Bishop was actually a very good one. The three prequels A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born (1985), The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987) and The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues (1994) are all fresh, engaging and entertainingly written. And even if they do raise awkward tedious Star Wars type questions about which order the books should be read in, we can surely forgive Harry Harrison for that.
Harry Harrison died in 2012, aged 87. He left an impressive legacy, in addition to the books already mentioned above, he produced the Eden trilogy of novels which imagined that the fatal asteroid which is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs had never struck the Earth, the Viking-orientated Hammer and the Cross saga, seven Deathworld books, the Bill the Galactic Hero novels and numerous stand-alone titles including The Techncolor Time Machine, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Raiders and Queen Victoria’s Revenge.
The Stainless Steel Rat books in fact reflect only a sizeable minority off his prolific literary output. Yet he was writing them right to the end. His final published book was The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010).
THE RAT PACK
The complete works…
The Stainless Steel Rat (1957): Short story The Misplaced Battleship (1960): Short story The Stainless Steel Rat (1961) The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970) The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (1972) The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! (1978) The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat (1981): Short story The Stainless Steel Rat For President (1982) A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born (1985) The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987) You Can Be The Stainless Steel Rat (1988) The Fourth Law of Robotics (1989): Short story The Golden Years of The Stainless Steel Rat (1993): Short story The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues (1994) The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell (1996) The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus (1999) The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010)
Forty years ago, in May 1978, Starlord came to Earth. “A new wild era of sci-fi starts here!” the front page of the new comic promised and on early evidence, it seemed to deliver, promising a weekly offering of British comic strip excellence likely to endure well into the 1980s and beyond.
Starlord was bold. It was exciting. It was a bit like 2000AD.
Ultimately, Starlord’s star shone brightly, but only briefly. The last issue, only the 22nd, appeared that October. Readers who had bought every issue from the start would have spent 12p a week during 1978, adding up to a grand total of £2.64. This is slightly less than one copy of 2000AD costs today.
What went wrong for the Galaxy’s OTHER greatest comic? We take a look back…
The same.Only different…
Starlord was supposed to be 2000AD’s older brother: indeed, perhaps a slightly posher brother who had picked up certain airs after attending the local grammar school. Eight of its pages were in full colour – a lot for the time – and at 12p, it was actually more expensive than 2000AD, which was a mere 9p.
2000AD, which was also edited by Kelvin Gosnell, had started just over a year before. Although a success – Judge Dredd was enjoying his first major epic storyline in ‘The Cursed Earth’ during the brief era of Starlord – there is little doubt looking back: Starlord was, for a while, the better of the two comics.
Just as 2000AD had Tharg the Mighty as editor, Starlord had Starlord himself, an alien humanoid with something of the look of Shakin’ Stevens about him. Unlike Tharg, Starlord had an important and urgent message for humans everywhere. “Hail, Star-Troopers,” he declared in the first of his “starzines,” “I have escaped the satanic forces of the INTERSTELLAR FEDERATION…to bring you A DIRE WARNING!”
Yes! Earth was under threat and a crash course in interstellar survival offered the only hope for survival. The comic’s stories were thus “Starlord Survival Blueprints” while the range of six badges given away with issue one were “Starlord Star-Squad Equipment.” Rather alarmingly, Starlord warned of the badges: “DO NOT place it on your skin, as the badge is made from a special metal mined on AXIS 1A you could develop a skin disorder, putting you out of combat”! Issue 2, incidentally, included a free space calculator offered to the reader with the warning: “Use it! It could save your life!”
Like a series of tweets written by an increasingly unbalanced 21st world leader, the use of capital letters grew more frequent as Starlord’s tone grew increasingly shrill. “I have seen the Gronks swarming in the star-spawned outer reaches of space – a sure sign of inter-Galactic disaster!…THE ENEMY IS MASSING TO STRIKE!” Finally, Starlord evoked the memory of a line from the 1951 film, ‘The Thing From Another World,’ which ended with an appeal to “Watch the skies!” “REMEMBER TROOPERS, STICK WITH ME,” urged Starlord. “AND WATCH THE STARS!”
How long could Starlord have maintained this perpetual state of high alert and frantic calls for vigilance for? Sadly, we never got the chance to find out.
Time after time
According to Starlord’s Survival Blueprints, the story ‘Planet of the Damned,” “toughens your endurance as your strength is tested to the very limit!” In fact, this description turned out to be surprisingly accurate. The first ever story in the comic was a hoary tale of nonsense based on what might happen to survivors lost in the midst of the mysterious Bermuda Triangle. In short, they got transported to another dimension. The story held over from its original planned home in 2000AD was the weakest of the new line-up. A test of endurance indeed…
Things improved somewhat with Timequake in which London tramp steamer skipper and working-class hero James Blocker inadvertently causes World War III. He then gets the opportunity to undo his error thanks to the intervention of a Star Trek type organisation called Time Control made up of recruits from Earth’s past and future ranging from the Roman era to the 40th century. This is all after we are told ‘Lyon Sprague’ invented time travel in the year 1997. But, of course, we all remember that…
The characters including Blocker (“M-me? Y-you’re round the flamin’ twist!”) were all pretty dull but there were lots of fun moments in Timequake. There were the frog-like Droon, Time Control’s enemy who inspired Brian Bolland to do an excellent cover for issue 2. “Human scum! You’re the last survivors!” one Droon says (as with Star Trek’s the Borg, the plural and singular are the same). “We have destroyed every one of your accursed sub-stations from 1978 backwards! And now we Droon destroy you!”
The next Timequake story envisaged a Nazi future created by a maniac who turned out to be real-life senior Nazi Martin Bornmann in disguise, but the follow-up in which another defunct empire, this time the Incas, took over the future, rather suggested inspiration was starting to dry up, despite some excellent visuals from Ian Kennedy.
But the best Starlord strips were yet to come…
John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s Strontium Dog introduced us to the world of 2180 and mutant bounty hunter Johnny Alpha, a man warped by the impact of a Neutron War thirty years earlier (neutron bombs which kill people while leaving buildings and property relatively intact being briefly a fashionable but terrifying possibliity in 1978).
Johnny Alpha, as extensive captions inform us, has been given white eyes but mind-reading powers by his mutation. Like all mutants, however, he is shunned by society, forced to work as a bounty hunter: an SD or Search/Destroy agent. In common, anti-mutant parlance they are known as “strontium dogs”.
Originally conceived as a New York taxi driver type, Alpha’s sidekick ultimately became Wulf Sternhammer, a formidable but benevolent Viking. “Comrades ve are, Johnny! Vere you go, Wulf go!” Wulf argues, explaining why he sticks with Alpha, despite his own non-mutant status. “A skull to crack with the happy stick und Vulf is fine!”
Strontium Dog provided Starlord with its first cover hero and many of the comic’s best moments: a space pirate attack, a giant, but irritable and slightly deaf computer called McIntyre and a creature called the Gronk, a timid creature, who lives in a box and has a mouth in its stomach.
Is this one of the same Gronks Starlord was on about “swarming in the star-spawned outer reaches of space” before? It was never really made clear.
Finally, there was Ro-Busters. Rejecting an initial bizarre idea from someone else about wounded Second World War veterans developing superpowers, writer Pat Mills instead created droids Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein (get it?) who are rescued from destruction by billionaire Howard Quartz (known as “Mr Ten Percent” as 90% of his actual body parts have been mechanically replaced in a bid to cheat death) to form a new international rescue organisation in the late 21st century. With the robots dealing with such trifles as a hole emerging in the trans-Atlantic tunnel and an organised robot uprising, this soon became very much “Thunderbirds with robots”. Ultimately, however, it was the likeable characters of Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein themselves, rather than the overall android international recue concept which would prove most enduring.
Two become one
There was more. Some brilliant covers: “It’s Planet Earth’s last day for this is the day of the clone. The day of Clone Wars!” There was another major strip, Mind Wars (“my brain is a time-bomb programmed to destroy all human life!”) and a brilliant one-off about a man, Sheldon and his ultimately deadly dream house.
But in October 1978, Starlord delivered his final message. “EARTH IS SAVED! The Int. Stell. Fed have abandoned their plans to attack and destroy us.” And there was other more news: “This is it! The big one! Two sci-fi greats unite in a giant leap for mankind!” Starlord – or at least, some of Starlord – was merging into its sister title, 2000AD.
Why had Starlord failed? Some argue it was doomed from an early stage.
“Starlord had been the creation of Kelvin Gosnell,” Steve MacManus wrote later. “His initial concept was a monthly science-fiction title that would sit comfortably alongside magazines such as Omni and Metal Hurlant. Both these titles were printed on glossy magazine paper and were aimed at fans of science-fiction stories and comic strips”. It was envisaged as an aspirational magazine packed with stories and sci-fi features which a 2000AD reader’s older brother might enjoy.
Sadly, all of these admirable plans soon went out the window.
“Out of the blue, management had decreed that the frequency should be weekly, not monthly,” MacManus explains. “This single change more or less ruined the title’s chances of establishing itself as a serious science-fiction magazine.”
The altered situation also caused problems for Ro-Busters’ author, Pat Mills.
“After writing it as a twelve-page self-contained story, there was a change of plan and the story was cut down to six pages an episode. This leads to all kinds of pacing problems,” Mills explains. And these were problems which he didn’t have time to fix. “A pity, because I knew the new format was wrong for it, and it’s why I started to lose interest in the series.”
MacManus soon found himself frustrated to be writing Starlord’s comparatively juvenile starzines. Although it often sold better than 2000AD, its similarity to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic essentially doomed it to failure.
“Starlord was still a relatively unknown quantity to the five thousand odd newsagents who stocked comics and magazines at the time,” muses Steve MacManus. “whereas they’d had a year to grow accustomed to 2000AD.”
So that was it. The final cover proclaimed: “Starlord’s ship is waiting to carry him beyond the stars!” “Now that your future is assured, I must return to the spaceways for the Gronks are calling and I cannot let them down.” Yes. The Gronks again.
He concluded: “And so, it is farewell for the last time, my friends! But keep watching the stars, for one day I may return!”
This hasn’t happened.
Actually, in a way, Starlord did return: in three annuals dated 1980, 1981 and 1982. All three were a pale shadow of the short-lived comic which had spawned them: a monochrome assortment of below par Strontium Dog and Mind Wars episodes, random short stories (“Ghost Hunter”) and scientific features (“Telephone lines in space”) and a few stories which had never been in the original comic (“Jimmi From Jupiter”).
2000AD and Starlord became 2000AD and Tornado in 1979 when another short-lived sister comic merged into it. In 1980, it became just 2000AD again. It has just been 2000AD ever since. Very unusually for a British comic it survived the whole of the 1980s and 1990s without ever merging again with anyone else.
Timequake returned briefly in 2000AD in 1979 but never appeared again. The other characters have enjoyed a rich post-Starlord afterlife, however. Although Ro-Busters ended in 1979, the characters Ro-Jaws and Hammerstein have appeared in the strips Nemesis the Warlock and particularly The ABC Warriors up to this day. Hammerstein even appeared in the 1990s Judge Dredd film. Strontium Dog too, still continues.
In short, forty years on, Starlord’s legacy continues.
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?
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!
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?”
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
“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…
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.
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?
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.
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.
How soon is too soon to write about the history of a particular time or 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 is 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 Chubby Brown begins and the real Chubby Brown 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 and David Cameron, the last becoming the first Tory leader to come from a public school background in forty years in 2005. 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 indeed turns out to really be him. The phone hacking scandal. The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. The rise and fall of George Galloway. The 2011 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 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.
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.
I saw one of these at the cinema in 1987. I have seen nine of them now.
Beverly Hills Cop II
The Living Daylights
3 Men and a Baby
Good Morning Vietnam
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.
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.
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.
I saw none of these at the cinema then. I have seen 7 since.
Top Gun (watched on TV in 1990. Flying scenes ace. The rest is rubbish).
Crocodile Dundee (video in 1980s. Seemed fun then. Now seems offensive).
Platoon (saw in 90s Excellent but grim)
The Karate Kid Part II (Never seen)
Star Trek IV; The Voyage Home (saw in 90s. Fun)
Back To School (Never seen. Straight to video in UK)
Aliens (saw in 90s. Excellent)
The Golden Child (Never seen)
Ruthless People (saw in 90s? Unmemorable)
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.
(I saw one at the cinema then. I have seen six today).
Back to the Future (cinema – amazing)
Rambo First Blood Part II (NS = Never seen)
Rocky IV (saw on video in the 80s)
The Color Purple (NS – Probably should have. Read book though)
Out of Africa (90s TV. Mostly dull)
Cocoon (NS properly – looks dull)
The Jewel of the Nile (video or TV 80s – dull)
Witness (TV/video. 90s – great)
The Goonies (80s video. Good)
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.