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.
Written by: Chris Hallam. Originally published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2017…
Fifty-three years. Thirty-five series. 827 episodes. Twelve Doctors. Doctor Who is a phenomenon without equal in TV or science fiction. Yet with series 10 and a new Doctor the way following news of the planned departure of Peter Capaldi at Christmas, is it still possible to put the show into some sort of perspective or is it doomed like the TARDIS to forever escape our comprehension? Join Chris Hallam as he explores…
The 7 Ages of Doctor Who…
Doctor Who is like nothing else on Earth.
In the UK, it remains the eighth longest series of all time rubbing shoulders with the likes of Coronation Street, The Sky At Night and Blue Peter. It is one of only a dozen or so programmes still showing to be old enough to have once been in black and white.
But in the realm of science fiction it is truly a world beater. Nothing else comes close to it in terms of longevity. Not Stargate, not Red Dwarf, not even Star Trek. Even if you collect all the different Star Trek series together and add them up (already an unfair comparison really) then Doctor Who still wins, in terms of both episodes and the span of time it’s been on. So if you think watching The OA on Netflix was a bit of a long haul recently, this should hopefully put things into perspective. It’s as if The OA was still on in 2069.
Science fiction isn’t really supposed to be like this, of course. Although in theory it should be more timeless than other genres, somehow it rarely seems to work out that way. It’s hard to imagine Blake’s 7 lasting into the 21st century, for example or Lost In Space even lasting into the Eighties. Most science fiction reflects its own times very strongly. Doctor Who owes its survival to a formula which ensures it can survive an ever-changing cast, its success in reviving itself after a sixteen-year hiatus and its evolution over the decades.
The history of the series so far can be divided into seven distinct phases…
THE FIRST AGE: GENESIS: 1963-1970
Star Trek had Gene Roddenberry. Star Wars had George Lucas. Harry Potter, JK Rowling. But there is no equivalent figure for the creation of Doctor Who.
The series emerged partly from a desire to fill the gap in BBC schedules on Saturday evenings, bridging the void between the end of Grandstand and the start of the then popular Juke Box Jury. But there was much more to it than that. it also formed the culmination of a collective effort to provide an ambitious new science fiction programme for the channel, following in the footsteps of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series in the 1950s and other experimental shows like A For Andromeda (1961). The new series would be more ambitious and longer running than either.
A group effort it may have been but certain individuals certainly deserve credit for Doctor Who notably the Head of TV Drama, Sydney Newman described by author James Chapman as “the most important single figure in the history of the history of the golden age of television in Britain”. Another was producer, Verity Lambert who was keen to ensure that Doctor Who would be more than just a kids’ show from the start. It was Lambert who chose William Hartnell, the star of the first Carry On film Carry On Sergeant and a familiar figure from TV sitcom The Army Game as the Doctor. The first episode was broadcast, coincidentally, on the day after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
To a modern viewer, only the title, the basic theme tune, the TARDIS and the presence of a character named “the Doctor” would link the first episode to the current series in any way.
Four basic factors partly explain why Doctor Who has endured for so long. For one thing, the original creators were ingenious enough to make the basic premise sufficiently vague to allow future writers plenty of leigh-way to develop it further. The Doctor himself, for example was initially described as:
“A frail old man lost in space and time. They give him the name because they don’t know who he is…he is searching for something as well as fleeing from something. He has a ‘machine’ which enables them to travel through time, through space and through matter.”
A second key factor was the creation of the Daleks. Their immense popularity from their first appearance in 1964 ensured the series a place in the national psyche. The Doctor’s battles with the Daleks also enabled his character and the series to develop in unforeseen ways.
Another essential element was the introduction of the Doctor’s ever-changing companions – several, at first, but generally only one at a time from the 1970s onwards – which kept the format fresh.
But crucially it was the Doctor’s ability to occasionally renew himself (the term “regeneration” was not used initially) which enabled the series to survive Hartnell’s decision to retire on health grounds in 1966. “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin,” Hartnell’s Doctor uttered shortly before collapsing onto the floor of the TARDIS and beginning a dramatic transformation. Sadly, as with many other episodes from the period, the actual episode has been wiped by the BBC. Thankfully, this crucial sequence has survived.
The younger Patrick Troughton brought humour to the role and was clearly a very different figure from his predecessor. Indeed, Newman characterised The Second Doctor as a “cosmic hobo”. The Troughton era would be characterised by a more diverse range of monsters (including the Cybermen, Yeti and Warriors). But it was the idea of regeneration – initially conceived as a stop gap measure to deal with a series crisis – which ensured that the show could still survive when an overworked Troughton himself gave way to Jon Pertwee in 1970.
THE SECOND AGE: THE GOLDEN ERA 1970-1980
The 1970s was ultimately to prove to be the heyday of Doctor Who. The year 1970 itself indeed saw many crucial changes.
First, there was the new Doctor himself. Although traditionally associated with comedic roles up until that point (he had starred in radio’s The Navy Lark and came very close to being cast as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army), Jon Pertwee took a decision early on to play the Doctor straight, distinguishing himself from Patrick Troughton’s more comedic approach immediately.
There were other changes. Pertwee was to be the first Doctor to have only one companion at a time: Katy Manning followed by Elisabeth Sladen. The series would also be broadcast in colour for the first time.
Finally, and crucially, following the Second Doctor’s trial by the Time Lords, Pertwee’s Doctor spent much of his entire tenure banished to exile on 20th century Earth as punishment for his violation of non-intervention laws. This is often cynically seen as a budgetary measure by the BBC. In fact, budgets rose for the series under Pertwee. Despite concerns that the Earth-bound setting might make the series resemble a 1970s version of Quatermass, the Pertwee Era (1970-74) is generally remembered with affection by fans.
Then came Tom Baker. The most eccentric of the Doctors, Baker’s relative youth and bohemian eternal student appearance raised eyebrows at first. In time, he would become the most enduring, the most popular and the most internationally recognised Doctor Who. His seven-year tenure (1974-81) witnessed a classic era for the series.
It is unusual for a series in its sixteenth year to be at its peak, indeed statistically after 16 years, most TV programmes are not only finished but long forgotten. But despite a growing Mary Whitehouse-led campaign concerning levels of violence within the series, such was the case with Doctor Who in 1979. Ratings were generally as high as nine to eleven million, peaking at 16.1 million for the final episode of City of Death in 1979. Admittedly, this was during a strike which had shut down production at ITV but even so, this remains an all-time high for the series. Critically, the show was doing well too, partly due to the contribution of talented young writers like Douglas Adams. Doctor Who was at a high.
Clearly, the only way was down.
THE THIRD AGE: FALLING SLOWLY 1980-1984
At just thirty, Peter Davison was already a likeable and familiar face to audiences having appeared in All Creatures Great and Small amongst other things and cameoing as the Dish of the Day in the 1982 TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy during his time as the Doctor. He nevertheless had a tough act to follow. The scripts reflect this insecurity; for example, on spying his new reflection the Doctor muses: “well, I suppose I’ll get used to in time.”
It is sad then, that the Davison era is associated with the beginning of a steep ratings decline which ultimately ended in the shows cancellation in 1989. This probably wasn’t Davison’s fault. Viewing figures had actually began to fall during Tom Baker’s last year, perhaps in response to radical changes introduced by flamboyant new producer John Nathan-Turner after 1980. These included a new heavily synthesized version of the familiar theme tune, new stylised costumes for the Doctors and updated filming techniques.
Fans generally welcomed the changes and Nathan-Turner was arguably only combatting an inevitable post-Star Wars decline for the series anyway; both budgets and expectations had suddenly risen dramatically. But whatever the truth: ratings did fall. Davison’s first series averaged only 5.8 million viewers with one episode dropping to 3.7 million: an all-time low for any Doctor Who episode up until that point.
Although in general Davison (now father-in-law to the Tenth Doctor David Tennant) is remembered fondly.
THE FOURTH AGE: DECLINE AND FALL 1984-1989
Who killed Doctor Who?
On the face of it, Michael (now Lord) Grade, the former head of BBC programming has often been happy to play the role of the biggest bogeyman in this story.
“The show was ghastly. It was pathetic,” he has said. “It just got more and more violent…it was just horrible to watch. It lost its way… I cancelled it. It was absolutely the right decision at the time.”
Grade indeed is right to take responsibility for the ultimate decision to pull the plug. But even ignoring his animus, there were other factors too. Ratings were now typically as low as four or five million and the show was becoming overly self-referential, appealing to its hardcore of fans but alienating everyone else. Attempts to attract publicity through unusual casting decisions such as Richard Briers and Alexei Sayle did not always help.
History has not been kind to the Sixth Doctor and in truth Colin Baker was dealt a rotten hand during his stint between 1984 and 1986 with most of this time spent in a period of enforced 18-month hiatus imposed by Grade. Baker’s spell as the Doctor ended acrimoniously, with the effect that the now traditional regeneration sequence had to be filmed without him.
Always vulnerable to the charge of being “just a children’s programme,” some scepticism met news of the appointment of Sylvester McCoy, an actor then primarily known for roles on kids’ TV (such as the Horrible Histories forerunner Eureka!) to succeed Colin Baker. In truth, McCoy soon warmed to the role helped (after a brief unhappy pairing with scream queen Bonnie Langford) by an especially able companion Ace (real name Dorothy) played by Sophie Aldred who had “been written with a greater sensitivity and subtlety than had usually been afforded by the role of companion” according to James Chapman in his book Inside The Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who. As Aldred’s confidence grew, Chapman argues, her initially tomboyish character was allowed to grow and develop in ways previously unseen in a Doctor’s companion.
But it was not enough. Chapman also argues that by the end, the BBC had lost interest in the show to the extent that they deliberately scheduled in slots where it was “doomed to fail” making its cancellation in 1989 inevitable.
Ultimately, the real question should not be who killed Doctor Who but why it endured for an impressive 26 years in the first place.
And even after that, it never really went away.
THE FIFTH AGE: LIMBO (1989-2005)
Years passed. Speculation about whether the series might yet return continued throughout the Nineties. The series’ cult following never went away and was reflected in the continuing fanzines and by sales of Doctor Who novels and magazines. But it was 1996 before a new Doctor Who came along and when it did it came in the form of what turned out to be a one-off TV movie.
By many usual criteria, the movie entitled simply “Doctor Who” was a success. Around nine million UK viewers watched it, certainly enough to suggest there was an audience for the new Doctor. Much of the critical feedback was positive. Certainly, most seemed happy with the choice of the new Doctor: Paul McGann best known for his role in the cult comedy Withnail and I (1987) and the BBC First World War drama The Monocled Mutineer (1986). The result of an audition process which had apparently included everyone from Mark McGann (Paul’s brother, one of an acting dynasty), Tony Slattery, Michael Crawford and John Sessions, McGann’s Doctor was styled as “a Romantic hero in the mould of Percy Bysshe Shelley” by writer James Chapman and was described as “the best” and “the sexiest Doctor ever” by others.
Probably the main failing of the TV movie, however, was with US audiences. Despite a US setting and the casting of American actors like Eric (brother of Julia) Roberts, the TV movie underperformed in the US and this ultimately ensured it would not continue as a series. Some have attributed this to poor scheduling choices – the film was put up against the final episode of long-running US sitcom, Roseanne. But in fact, it was more likely to have been let down by a simple fact; Doctor Who had never been on network TV in the US and so most American viewers were unfamiliar with the character, series and the concept.
It would take another later version of the show to slowly establish a foothold amongst US audiences. And it would need to establish itself in the UK first.
THE SIXTH AGE: THE RETURN (2005-2010).
Apparently, it isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time. Well, maybe that’s true but the 21st century revival of Doctor Who certainly came damned close. By delivering a new Doctor Who imbued the all the production values the show deserved, the comeback pleased core fans, critics and newcomers alike.
Partly this was down to excellent casting. Although he only chose to play the Doctor for one series, Christopher Eccleston was one of the best known actors to have ever played the Doctor with a career encompassing memorable roles in TV dramas like Our Friends In The North and Russell T. Davies’s Second Coming to films like Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave to Gone in Sixty Seconds. He was ably assisted by ex-pop star Billie Piper in the role Rose Tyler, one of the most popular companions ever.
Although much less well known on his appointment, David Tennant, star of Russell T. Davies’s Casanova, soon blossomed in the role of the Doctor, his performance developing from a rather uneven one in his early days in the TARDIS. By the time he left the series in 2010, he was rivalling Tom Baker for the position of most popular Doctor Who ever.
For to visit the Doctor Who of a decade ago is to see the show at an all-time high. Ratings for the 2007 Christmas special for example were almost higher than they had ever been, over 13 million. The show had furthermore spawned two successful spin-offs the more grown-up Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures. Things had never been better.
THE SEVENTH AGE: INTO THE FUTURE (2010-?)
The last decade as seen a slight decline in the series’ fortunes. Since the departure of Russell T. Davies as show runner in 2010, ratings have fallen. Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures have ended but have been replaced by a new spin-off series Class. Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi have both been well-received as the Doctor but there has been a growing sense that Doctor Who has gradually less compulsive viewing in the last few years.
Veteran actor Peter Capaldi has indicated that the forthcoming Series 10 of Doctor Who will be his last. But what does Series 10 have to offer? And what does Capaldi’s departure potentially mean for the show?
Ultimately, the future of Doctor Who is as yet unwritten. We do not even know much about Series 10. Yes, a few old favourites will return: Matt Lucas will reprise his recent role as Nardole. After a long build-up Pearl Mackie will finally take up her role as companion Bill to Capaldi’s Doctor. The likes of David Suchet and Ralf Little are also expected to appear.
Who then will be the new Doctor? Speculation has already been rampant although ultimately the decision as to replace Steven Moffat who his leaving his position as show runner after this series with Chris Chibnall might be as crucial.
For ultimately it is how Doctor Who responds to such changes, how successfully it renews and refreshes itself which will determine Doctor Who’s future. It is these qualities which have ensured its survival in the past half century and will maintain it in the future either as a cult or a show with a committed mass audience.
DOCTOR AT LARGE: BIG SCREEN TIMELORDS
One thing that might have made the idea of William Hartnell turning into Patrick Troughton a bit easier to swallow was the fact that many viewers had already seen the Doctor by someone other than Hartnell already. Veteran actor and future Rogue One star Peter Cushing had played the Doctor twice in the films Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966) both directed by Gordon Flemyng (father of the actor Jason Flemyng). Unsurprisingly, neither of these films is quite the same as the series. Despite his horror background, Cushing is a more good-natured Doctor than Hartnell in films which seem very specifically aimed at children. Roy Castle and future 21st century series star Bernard CribbIns provide comic relief respectively while the titles for both films suggest an attempt to capitalise on the early Daleks craze. Neither are bad films but after the second (probably superior) film did less box office than the first, no more films were made. Today, the two present an interesting curiosity as well as the earliest example of Doctor Who in colour.
ALL CHANGE PLEASE!: THE REGENERATION GAME
What brought on the Doctors’ big change each time?
FIRST DOCTOR (The Tenth Planet, 1966): Old and worn out, Hartnell’s Doc collapses on the floor of the TARDIS. A few minutes later, Patrick Troughton gets up again. Clever eh?
SECOND DOCTOR (The War Games, 1970): As punishment for his interventionist ways, the Time Lords force a “change of appearance” on Troughton’s Doctor as well as exile to Earth.
THIRD DOCTOR: (Planet of the Spiders, 1974). Poisoned by radiation, this saw the term “regeneration” used for the first time. In Doctor Who, that is.
FOURTH DOCTOR (Logopolis, 1981): Falls from a radio telescope. We’ve all done it.
FIFTH DOCTOR (The Caves of Androzani, 1984): Succumbs to poisoning while staring at Nicola Bryant’s cleavage. It’s what he would have wanted…
SIXTH DOCTOR (Time and the Rani, 1987) Colin Baker’s Doctor regenerates into Sylvester McCoy following a crash landing for the TARDIS. An irked Baker refused to participate, so McCoy was filmed throughout the process using clever special effects and a blond curly wig.
SEVENTH DOCTOR (The 1996 TV film): In a fridge in a morgue after being shot in LA.
EIGHTH DOCTOR (The Night of the Doctor, 2013): Paul McGann’s Doctor dies in a spaceship crash regenerating into the War Doctor (the late John Hurt) after drinking a special potion in this mini-episode. The War Doctor then himself regenerates from old age in the 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor (also 2013). Do keep up please!
NINTH DOCTOR (The Parting of the Ways, 2005): Christopher Eccleston perishes after absorbing the time vortex.
TENTH DOCTOR (THE END OF TIME, 2010): Absorbs a vast amount of radiation thus saving Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins). Tennant wasn’t even born when Cribbins appeared in the Sixties Who movie.
ELEVENTH DOCTOR (The Time of the Doctor, 2013): Receives a new lease of life after receiving a regeneration cycle from the Time Lords before regenerating into Peter Capaldi.
Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay by William Gibson: by Pat Cadigan; William Gibson. Published by: Titan Books.
There is quite a lot of backstory here. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
To start with: this isn’t a screenplay. It is a novel. It is a novel written by Pat Cadigan based on a screenplay which was written but not used for the 1992 film, Alien 3. The original screenplay was written by the distinguished science fiction author, William Gibson who is best known for his Hugo award-winning 1984 cyberpunk novel,, Neuromancer. But his script for Aliens 3 bore no resemblance to one used for the finished film.
On this evidence, it seems a shame Gibson’s version was never put into action. For the actual Aliens 3 (despite being directed by a young David Fincher who later oversaw the two classics, Seven and Fight Club) was a disappointing failure. This is a shame because the first two Alien films, Ridley Scott’s chilling Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s action-packed Aliens (1986) remain two of the finest science fiction films ever made. But no good Alien films have been made in the years since. Perhaps you’ve only ever seen the first two movies? If so, take my advice and stop there.
Incidentally, this volume would sorely benefit from the inclusion of some sort of introduction explaining what exactly this is.
Unlike the aliens themselves, Alien 3 had a long gestation period. The Gibson screenplay was written early on, soon after Aliens (1986) had been released and proven to be a success. William Gibson’s story has a few strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, it has a much better start than the actual Alien 3. This opened badly with the revelation that two of the survivors of the second film,, Newt and Corporal Hicks had been killed in an accident, a depressing and unsatisfactory outcome for viewers who had seen them live through and survive so much during James Cameron’s film. In this version, Hicks (portrayed by Michael Biehn in Aliens) and the android, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) both play a major role in the action. This is very welcome. More controversially, the franchise’s traditional heroine, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is very much pushed to the side lines here. Another weaker aspect, is the introduction of a futuristic version of the USSR, something which would already have seemed dated by the time the finished film came out in 1992, the USSR having collapsed the year before. It certainly looks dated now.
But overall, this remains an enjoyable mixture of science fiction and horror: Pat Cadigan, who wrote this prose version, is an accomplished and talented Hugo-award winning author herself. It would be easy to mock: “In space, no one can hear you yawn…” But, in truth, this a good novel in its own right and an intriguing footnote on the history of film, shedding light on a great cinematic What If…? which might so easily have been.
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.
Martian invaders who mercilessly destroy everything in their path. A scientist who develops the power to make himself invisible. A machine which can transport the passenger though the fourth dimension: time. Just where here would be without Herbert George Wells? 150 years after his birth it’s impossible to imagine the world of science fiction without the books H.G. Wells wrote and the many films they inspired.…
By the time H.G. Wells died in 1946, the world was trembling in awe at the destructive power of the first atomic bombs and reeling from the impact of two devastating world wars. But at the time of his birth in 1866, horses were still everywhere and telephones and motor cars were still the stuff of futuristic science fiction. Even when Wells grew up and wrote the hugely imaginative books which made his name in the 1890s, the first aeroplanes were still yet to fly.
No one had ever seen a film when H.G. Wells was growing up either but this didn’t stop him enjoying them as an adult. According to author Alan Gallop, (author of The Martians Are Coming!):
“Wells loved everything about movies and moviemaking. He liked the company of film directors and producers, screenwriters and pretty actresses.”
This is a good thing as Wells’ books, particularly his most famous early books (which Wells described as “science romances”) always attracted a huge amount of interest from filmmakers and indeed the cinema-going public. Wells himself, of course, would not live to see most of these films, let alone get involved in the production but we can.
And as we shall see in the next few pages, some were better than others…
The Time Machine
(Book: 1895. Filmed: 1960, 2002)
Some people say it is better to travel than to arrive. This is certainly true in the case of George Pal’s enjoyable 1960 adaptation of Wells’ first novel, The Time Machine. For fun though the movie is, it is never better than during the Oscar-winning scenes where the hero (Rod Taylor, also of Hitchcock’s The Birds) experiences time travel for the first time.
Although generally less political than the book, the film followed the novel reasonably closely despite a few minor changes. The initial events are switched to the New Year period of 1900 (several years after the book was published). The previously unnamed time traveller becomes “George” in the film, presumably in honour of Herbert George Wells, “Herbert” perhaps not being judged a sufficiently heroic name. The personalities of George’s colleagues are also filled out and a later sequence in which the time traveller witnesses the Earth in its final days, suffering beneath a huge pre-supernova sun is wholly omitted from the film version.
But the essence of the book remains. The time traveller invents the machine and travels to the distant and random futuristic year of 802701 (mark this date in your calendars please). He finds the world inhabited by pleasant but intellectually vacuous flower children known as the Eloi who live a Garden of Eden type existence. Blond and pretty, they are not so much Children of the Damned as Children of the Dumb and spend their days swimming, flirting and ignoring all the world’s books which have subsequently turned to dust on their shelves. Their lives are spoilt only by the blue subterranean albino gorillas known as the Morlocks who despite a commendable work ethic, enjoy eating Eloi on their lunch break.
The time travel scenes are great. Although a bit inconsistent – some of the things George witnesses from the machine, (such as the clothes on the dummy in the nearby shop window) change at a different rate than others – there is truly something magical about the way the days flicker by. Nearby flowers visibly bloom and close and the seasons roll by beautifully in these scenes. In a notable variation on the 1895 novel, George also gets the chance to witness the unhappy consequences of not one, not two but three world wars during the 20th century segment of his journey bumping into his friend’s son (Alan Young) in both 1917 and again, shortly before a nuclear attack in the then still futuristic year of 1966,
One happy consequence of a nuclear war in 1966 had it actually occurred, would have been that no one would have had to see the terrible version of the story made by Wells’ great-grandson, Kung Fu Panda director Simon Wells in 2002. In this version Guy Pearce plays Dr Alexander Hartdegen whose trip to the future from New York this time is inspired by a desire to save his fiancée from a premature death: a very loose adaptation of the book indeed. The human race this time is devastated not by atomic warfare but by an accident in which the moon is accidentally destroyed in 2037 (again, mark this date in your calendars). In the far future, the Eloi Vs Morlock rivalry persists but now includes short-lived singing sensation Samantha Mumba playing one of the Eloi and Jeremy Irons as an intelligent chatty Morlock.
In fairness, the 2002 film isn’t all awful. But the time travel sequences are duller than in the 1960 film and somehow the film robs the story of all its charm.
Even Samantha Mumba can’t save it.
The Island of Doctor Moreau
(Book: 1896. Filmed: 1932, 1977, 1996)
There’s no getting away from it: The Island of Doctor Moreau is a bit of an odd book. Yet more than a century on, it is still widely read because it tackles ethical issues which are still relevant today. It’s also remains a cracking good read despite being one of Wells’ darkest novels.
The story tells of a shipwrecked young man who finds himself marooned on an island inhabited by the notorious doctor of the title, a vivisectionist living in exile after a scandal. But they are not alone. The marooned sailor soon discovers the disturbing results of the mad doctor’s experiments all around him. Unlike Dr Doolittle, Moreau doesn’t talk to the animals. He conducts hideous experiments on them and tries to turn them into humans.
The book inspired both a Simpsons parody and the name of the hip hop band House of Pain, but cinema has served it less well. Wells himself personally hated the first feature length version of the novel (there had been two earlier silent versions), which was filmed under the title The Island of Lost Souls, as he thought Charles Laughton’s camp performance as the doctor pushed it too far towards being just a horror movie.
As critic Philip K. Scheuer wrote at the time: “There is no fooling about Island of Lost Souls. It’s a genuine shocker, hard to shake off afterward. As art, it begins and ends with Charles Laughton”.
In fact, this production, which also featured Dracula star Bela Lugosi, is now rated highly, Kim Newman describing it as “the most comprehensively (and admirably) horrid of all the classic horror films from its period”. It is also considered the best of the three main Moreau films. Although, to be fair, the competition is not exactly very stiff.
If the 1977 version starring Burt Lancaster and Michael York was something of a disappointment, the third version (also called The Island of Dr Moreau) filmed by John Frankenheimer in the centenary year of the book’s publication (1996) was a famous cinematic disaster.
Many were amused by the casting of the by then very obese and somewhat past his best Marlon Brando. A common joke ran, “Have you heard Marlon Brando’s playing the title role in The Island of Dr Moreau? He’s playing the island.” But there were many other problems too as the production ran horrendously over-budget amidst a plague of weather problems and a dramatic falling out between the veteran director Frankenheimer and star Val Kilmer.
Frankenheimer who had directed The Birdman of Alcatraz in his prime was quite vocal about his leading man once stating: “There are two things I will never do in my life. I will never climb Mount Everest, and I will never work with Val Kilmer again. There isn’t enough money in the world.” Frankenheimer was as good as his word and died in 2002 without doing either of these things.
The resulting flop spawned the 2014 documentary Lost Souls: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr Moreau (Stanley had been the original director). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the documentary is much better viewing than the film itself.
The Invisible Man
(Book: 1897. Filmed: many times)
It’s one of the oldest jokes in the world: have you seen the Invisible Man? In fact, the story has been filmed so many times, chances are you probably have seen The Invisible Man in some form or another. Whether it resembled the original source material or was even called The Invisible Man remains to be seen (no pun intended).
The story centres on Griffin, a student whose life is effectively ruined after he discovers the means to make first his cat, then himself invisible. The dream of many, for Griffin, the experience quickly becomes a nightmare as he is forced to cover himself in bandages and turn to a life of crime in order to survive. The methodology behind Griffin’s breakthrough is intriguing: he makes himself invisible through a combination of adjustments to his skin pigmentation and to the refractive index of the light which reflects off him. It would never actually work in reality but is convincing enough in the context of the novel.
The 1933 film version of the story starring Claude Rains and directed by the legendary James Whale with a script by R.C Sherriff is still considered a classic. Rains became a star despite barely appearing on screen. H.G. Wells again wasn’t keen though. In his book H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, (published by: Peter Owen), Michael Sherborne relates:
“Wells showed some ambivalence towards the movie when he said of the script, “I am told that Mr Sherriff’s version was the thirteenth prepared. I should be amused to see the other twelve versions.”
But even from then onwards it is difficult to keep track of all the numerous knock offs and sequels which quickly emerged in its wake. The Invisible Man Returns (1940) was one and The Invisible Agent (1942) another and Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man (1951) another still. Yet with the likes of The Invisible Woman (1940) and The Invisible Ghost (1942) and loose adaptations such as TV’s The Invisible Man (1975), John Carpenter’s weak Chevy Chase and Daryl Hannah comedy Memoirs of An Invisible Man (1992) and Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (2001), all we can say with any certainty is that The Invisible Man has been adapted far more loosely than any other Wells’s work.
And most of these are best left unseen.
The War of the Worlds
(Book: 1898. Filmed: 1953, 2005)
Not many science fiction stories are set In Woking.
Much of the epic power of H.G. Wells’ famous story of Martian invasion comes not just from the sheer scale of the tripod-led alien attack, Wells imagined but from the fact he based it in such realistic surroundings, namely around his own home turf of Surrey. It is thus somewhat disappointing that both the big screen versions of the story followed Orson Welles’ lead (see the Mars Attacks! sidebar) in relocating the action to the present day United States.
Perhaps Wells’ book was simply too far ahead of its time for its own good: it is harder to imagine alien heat rays incinerating people on the streets in late Victorian times, simply because we know historically that this didn’t happen.
Seven years before he turned his hand to directing H.G. Wells’ Time Machine, George Pal produced a full colour version of the story set in California starring Gene Barry and Ann Robinson and geared towards a world now familiar with the horrors of world wars and coming to terms with the new atomic age. Indeed, the full force of the US military-industrial complex is unleashed on the Martian invaders and an atomic bomb is, indeed, dropped on them at one point to little avail.
It is true Pal’s film (which was actually directed by Bryon Haskin) bears little resemblance in many respects to Wells’ novel. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing in itself: great though Wells’ story is, the 1953 film is undeniably a classic science fiction movie in its own right. Unusually, the film itself spawned a sequel in the form of an often surprisingly gory TV series produced and set a full thirty-five years later running from 1988 until 1990.
Like George Pal’s earlier film, Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) starring Tom Cruise and Dakota Fanning (with narration by Morgan Freeman) was a smash hit vividly bringing to life the struggles of a Californian construction worker as he struggles to protect his family from the Martian foe. But unusually for Spielberg, the characters are fairly uninteresting. It is thus hard to really care about anything that happens. It thus ends up being rather dull, special effects or not.
The story continues to inspire filmmakers, however, with a number of versions being produced in the decade since Spielberg’s film. The most interesting of these have followed the mockumentary route. War of the Worlds – The True Story (2005) cleverly interweaves archive footage with the action to make it appear as if Orson Welles’ 1938 broadcast was actually based on real events. Similarly, The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013) was cleverly presented in the form of an episode of a docudrama on the History Channel.
The First Men in the Moon
(Book: 1901. Filmed: 1902, 1919, 1964)
While no one has actually travelled through time, made themselves invisible or fought off invaders from Mars, people have walked on (rather than “in”) the moon, first achieving this in 1969, more than twenty years after Wells’ death. Wells cannot claim to have invented the idea, however, French author Jules Verne for one had in fact written the books From the Earth to the Moon (1865) and Around the Moon (1870). Worse, Verne (an old man by 1901) criticised the science behind Wells’ book which relied upon a fictional element called “cavorite” to get the rocket to the moon. He felt the methodology in his own books which saw a rocket being successfully got to the moon after being blasted out of a huge cannon, seemed far more plausible.
In truth, however quaint either version might now seem, it is worth remembering Wells’ book in which two adventurers travel to the moon and encounter a bizarre subterranean insect-like species dubbed “the Selenites” was published in the same year Queen Victoria died and two years before the Wright brothers achieved the first ever manned flight. Wells had been born, the son of a Kent shopkeeper in 1866. The fact he was imagining moon landings at all is pretty impressive.
The book also inspired a landmark of early cinema, A Trip To The Moon (1902), a legendary work evoked in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo or (if you prefer) the Smashing Pumpkins video Tonight Tonight and essentially a mash up of Verne and Wells’ stories. Another silent film version of Wells’ book appeared in 1919.
Then, just five years before Apollo 11, came another fun version of the story featuring Edward Judd and Lionel Jefferies. An old man in a retirement home watches footage of American astronauts landing on the moon on TV. The astronauts are astonished to find a Union Jack already flying on the moon! This prompts a flood of memories from the man as he recalls how he, his fiancée and an eccentric inventor first travelled to the moon, wearing diving suits in 1899.
The Shape of Things to Come
(Book: 1933. Film: 1936)
This is the odd one out in this selection. For one thing, Wells wrote the book much later in his career than everything else mentioned here. He also was technically involved in the production of the film which had its title shortened to Things to Come. The film was only loosely based on the book, however, and the true extent of the elderly author’s influence on such dynamic figures as producer Alexander Korda is open to question.
H.G. Wells was determined about one thing: the film should in no way resemble Metropolis, up to that point, the leading science fiction film of the era. Wells regarded Fritz Lang’s film as “ignorant old fashioned balderdash” and told the filmmakers that “whatever Lang did in Metropolis is the exact contrary of what we want done here”.
In H.G, Wells: Another Kind of Life, (published by Peter Owen), Michael Sherborne argues:
“…though Wells was credited with masterminding the film, his artistic control was limited. Wells defended the film in public, but was disappointed in private. He complained that the film-makers had side-lined him…had damaged his prestige with the half-educated audience he was trying to influence. However, there is nothing to suggest that the film would have turned out any better if Wells had exercised greater control.”
The novel takes the form of a futuristic history book which looks back on an imagined history starting in 1933 when the book was published and lasting until 2106. Even allowing for the volatile political environment of the 1930s, Wells is uncannily close to near total accuracy in his prediction that a Great War would break out over a crisis in Danzig in January 1940. Such a crisis did indeed spark off World War II in September 1939, only three months earlier than the war Wells envisaged. Thereafter, inevitably, the novel departs from what actually would happen in reality, Wells’s war proving inconclusive and lasting a full decade, before being followed by a plague and a continuation of the 1930s Great Depression. Miserable as these sounds, Wells ultimately envisages a world moving towards a form of utopia under a world government, a prediction which reflects Wells’s socialist outlook.
Things To Come – which starts the war in December 1940 – remains an impressive spectacle. Audiences at the time were terrified by the images of British cities being subjected to aerial bombardment, scenes which would be replicated in real-life just four years later. It is listed in the book, 1001 Movies You Must See before You Die where Barton Palmer comments, “It captures the anxieties and hopes of 1930s Britain perfectly, chillingly forecasting the blitz that would descend upon London.”
Mars Attacks!: Orson Welles and the big broadcast of 1938
No one would have believed that in the last years of the 1930s, a radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds published over forty years before, would trigger a widespread panic when broadcast on the radio in the United States. But this is exactly what happened.
Beginning with a series of news reports interspersed between segments of supposedly scheduled classical music performances, listening to it today, it is easy to see why anyone listening to the broadcast in October 1938 would have been fooled, especially if they had tuned in half way through. This was, of course, in an age where audiences had no TV, internet or mobile phones with which to verify the alarming reports they were hearing.
The broadcast had generated a major panic, probably fuelled by the decision to use real US place names, notably Grover’s Mill, New Jersey in the script. Some people bizarrely claimed to have “seen” the alien invaders. Others seemed unclear if Martians, Nazis, Communists or Japanese had been attacking. Heart attacks induced by the panic were reported. Underlying anxiety about a probable imminent European war to some extent explains the whole phenomenon.
But as Orson Welles, the man behind the adaptation was quick to emphasise; the show had not been intended as a hoax. As he delivered the final lines of the live performance, Welles (no relation to H.G. Wells, despite their similar surnames), was concerned to see a number of police entering the studio. He subsequently proved surprisingly disingenuous about the effects of the chillingly convincing broadcast pointing out there had been several assurances that the work was fictional throughout. These were assurances which listeners might easily have missed and indeed, many obviously did.
For a short while, Welles feared that his career as a hugely talented actor, director and writer was over. In fact, the broadcast was the making of him. Soon, he would direct and star in Citizen Kane, the film that would permanently isolate him from the Hollywood establishment but which would in time be regarded as the greatest movie ever made. He delivered numerous great performances in the likes of The Third Man and Touch of Evil, grew to be physically huge and ended his days voicing Unicorn in Transformers: The Movie (1986).
H.G. Wells himself was not impressed. His US agent hinted at legal consequences over both the lack of faithfulness to his original work and also that “Mr H.G. Wells personally is deeply concerned that any of his work should be used in such a way, and with totally unwarranted liberty, to cause deep distress and alarm throughout the United States”.
Later, Wells met the young man behind the drama and his attitude softened. A surge in sales of The War of the Worlds now advertised as “the book that terrorised the nation over the air!” probably helped.
Source: The Martians Are Coming!: The True Story of Orson Welles’ 1938 Panic Broadcast by Alan Gallop.
All’s well that ends well…
H.G. Wells achieved a lot in his life, advancing attitudes on socialism, universal government and writing many non-fiction or non-science fiction books in addition to the ones mentioned here. But it is his impact on the world of science fiction for which he will always be best remembered.
The 1979 film Time After Time sees Malcolm McDowell playing Wells himself as he travels in his own time machine to present day New York in pursuit of an escaping Jack The Ripper (David Warner). The story, based on a novel by Karl Alexander, is soon to be remade for TV.
In reality, though this is obviously fiction, Wells was certainly the first person to write about a physical machine which goes through time. In short, without Wells it is doubtful we would ever have had the DeLorean of Back to the Future or the Tardis or the grandiose alien invasions of Independence Day.
Science fiction undoubtedly owes H.G. Wells an enormous debt.
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.
During a forty year career, the fertile mind of Michael Crichton created numerous stories featuring deadly plagues, rebellious robots and resurgent dinosaurs. With a new TV version of Crichton’s Westworld striding boldly towards us this October, Geeky Monkey takes a look at the work of a man who left a huge indelible footprint on the history of science fiction…
WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM
In November 2008, with the news dominated by the election of Barack Obama, another news story could easily have slipped by unnoticed: Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton had died aged just 66.
As the man behind one of the biggest cinematic hits ever, Michael Crichton was a towering figure in every sense (he was 6ft 9). But he had a somewhat mixed record as both an author and of director of science fiction.
Michael Crichton wrote books, directed films based on his own books, directed films based on other people’s books, directed films not based on his or anyone else’s books and saw his own books adapted by other directors. Not all of the novels or directorial projects are of the type which piques Geeky Monkey’s interest: for example, neither Disclosure or Rising Sun fit into the sci-fi or fantasy bracket and so don’t expect them to be discussed much here. But whether good or bad, Crichton’s medical experience was always evident. Whether it was a version of one of his own books or one of his own original screenplays, it was as if Michael Crichton had injected himself into every frame.
The Andromeda Strain
Book (1969). Filmed: 1971, TV version: 2008
The danger that humanity may be threatened by an unstoppable outbreak of an incurable and fast spreading disease is sadly one of the more plausible apocalyptic scenarios. Crichton tackles this head on in his breakthrough novel, which centres on the aftermath of a space satellite’s return to Earth. It soon emerges that everyone in the surrounding Arizona area where the satellite has crashed down is dead, some of them having died in bizarre mysterious ways. A dispassionate scientific analysis begins: was the satellite harbouring a deadly microorganism?
Published when Crichton was still embarking on a medical career in his twenties (he apparently once overheard two senior doctors discussing his own book), The Andromeda Stain made Crichton a star. It achieves the difficult feat of being both scientifically credible and a compelling enjoyable read.
And, happily, the film wasn’t bad either. Directed by Robert Wise (the man behind the not very similar Sound of Music although he would later do the first Star Trek film), The Andromeda Strain was largely faithfully brought to the screen and was notable for its early use of special effects from 2001: A Space Odyssey wizard Douglas Trumbull. A modest box office hit, it is still very watchable and became an influence on everything from Outbreak (1995) to Contagion (2011) the last of which saw an apocalyptic plague start after Gwyneth Paltrow shook hands with a chef who hadn’t washed his hands after some bats pooed on the food he was about to serve.
Sadly, a “reimagining” of the book staring Benjamin Bratt worked less well as a TV mini-series in 2008. A very loose adaptation indeed and very unmemorable: The Amnesia Strain might have been a better title.
The Terminal Man
Book: 1969. Film: 1974
The second Crichton sci-fi book to be adapted drew direct inspiration from his medical career:
“I saw a patient in a hospital who was being treated with electrodes implanted in the brain, hooked up to a monitoring computer,” Crichton later wrote. “I thought this treatment was horrific and I was amazed that the research seemed to be going forward with no public discussion or even knowledge. I decided to write a novel to make such procedures better known.”
The experience (of a treatment which is now no longer carried out) provided the basis for The Terminal Man. The novel centres on one Harry Benson who undergoes a futuristic version of electronic brain implantation similar to that witnessed by Crichton to cure him of the epileptic seizures he has begun to experience since suffering injuries in a car accident. Benson soon becomes incredibly violent as a result. Critically well received as a book, despite receiving some criticism for linking epilepsy to violence, the film which starred George Segal is generally less well liked. Roy Pickard has argued (in the book Science Fiction At The Movies) that it is in some ways superior to anything in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Despite this, Crichton was aggrieved that he lost his role as director to Mike Hodges, the man who would later direct Flash Gordon (1980). Crichton later admitted that he liked The Terminal Man less than any other books.
Sequel: Futureworld (1976)
TV series: Beyond Westworld (1980)
HBO TV series due: 2016
Imagine a holiday in which you can sample the thrill of being in ancient Rome, medieval England or the Wild West. Peopled by robots, Delos, the holiday resort in Westworld, offers all of these things and more. Our heroes (played by Josh Brolin and Richard Benjamin) are drawn to the wild west sector where an android gunslinger played by Yul Brynner (wearing the same outfit he had earlier worn in the western, The Magnificent Seven) is obligingly shot down to please the tourists every day.
But then the robots start going wrong. Previously obliging medieval serving wenches become uppity and slap their clients (“My Lord forgets himself!”) while the robots all over the three worlds suddenly go into revolt, Brynner’s gunfighter becoming especially lethal…
Hands up if you jumped to Westworld in this feature straight away? If you did, we certainly don’t blame you. Westworld is Crichton’s most fun pre-Jurassic Park creation. It was the first film ever to use CGI (on a limited scale). It was also the first to demonstrate Crichton’s talent for imagining futuristic theme parks and then have them go horribly wrong.
Indeed, there is an element of the Jurassic Park issue here – scientists have used technology which they don’t really understand leading to an ultimately deadly environment. As one Delos scientist explains: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”
Crichton originally conceived Westworld as a novel but ended up writing it as a screenplay and directing it as a film where it soon enjoyed success. Crichton had nothing to do with the 1976 sequel Futureworld starring Peter Fonda which lazily attempted to recreate the formula of the original on a larger scale even featuring Brynner’s gunfighter only in a rather pointless dream sequence. The 1980 TV series Beyond Westworld was a flop too. Featuring a plot to use the androids of Delos to take over the world, the show was canned after only three out of five episodes had been aired.
The new HBO series Westworld due out later this year looks much more promising, however, not only in terms of cast (it features the distinguished likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright) but in terms of depth.
Judging by the trailer, the new series not only promises to explore the three worlds of Delos in greater detail but promises to be a dark intelligent affair featuring Blade Runner style mediations on the nature of existence. If the series lives up to the promise of the trailer, it seems likely Crichton himself would have approved.
Apes have a difficult legacy on film. For every King Kong (1933), there’s a King Kong (1976). For every Planet of the Apes (1968), there’s a Planet of the Apes (2001).
Congo sadly slips into the “awful” category thanks largely to some terrible acting performances from Tim Curry and Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson, but also because, in common with the aforementioned Dino de Laurentiis King Kong remake and, indeed, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), it is rendered ridiculous by the use of silly looking gorilla costumes. This was just about acceptable when Planet of the Apes came out in 1968 but was already pushing it a vit, in the 70s and 80s when King Kong and Greystoke used them. By 1995, soon after the release of Crichton’s own CGI-filled Jurassic Park, it looked completely absurd.
Congo, is in truth, not one of Crichton’s better books anyway. After a series of mysterious deaths occurs in the Congo, an expedition is sent out which discovers a dangerous race of hyper-intelligent human-gorilla hybrids. Although definitely science fiction, Crichton attempted to inject some of the feel of the 19th century adventure story like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (a name Crichton would consciously poach later).
Crichton actually sold the film rights in 1979 before completing the book and was optimistic about Sean Connery being cast. But the film didn’t end up being made until Crichton’s post-Jurassic boom period and Connery didn’t appear.
CGI was briefly considered but ruled out. But in truth gorilla suits are only part of the problem with Frank Marshall’s frequently ridiculous film. It would have been all over the place anyway, good special effects or not.
But against all odds, Congo didn’t flop. It was a solid commercial hit.
Perhaps the least remembered of any of Crichton’s film, some would argue that as a critical and commercial flop, Looker is best skipped over quickly. The film sees Albert Finney play a plastic surgeon who becomes suspicious after a series of already beautiful models approach him seeking minor and indeed apparently imperceptible physical alterations. He becomes even more intrigued after the models start being murdered and he finds himself under suspicion of killing them. What is going on and how are the sinister Digital Matrix research firm involved?
Though not a success, Looker deserves to be remembered for one reason at least: the film featured the first ever CGI human character. Filmsite.org’s Film Milestones in Visual and Special Effects explains:
“The visual effects in Michael Crichton’s high-tech science-fiction thriller featured the first CGI human character, model Cindy (Susan Dey of The Partridge Family fame). Her digitization was visualized by a computer-generated simulation of her body being scanned – notably the first use of shaded 3D CGI in a feature film. Polygonal models obtained by digitizing a human body were used to render the effects.”
Not bad for 1981.
It is a well-known fact that actor Tom Selleck was forced to turn down the role of Indiana Jones due to his contractual obligations to the hit TV series Magnum P.I. Selleck’s disappointment at what might have been is only to understandable and obvious: a number of subsequent films saw Selleck apparently trying to emulate Harrison Ford in Indy-type roles. Runaway, directed and written by Crichton, is quite different, however. On paper at least, Selleck seems to be emulating Ford in another film entirely: Blade Runner.
Selleck plays Sgt. Jack R. Ramsey, a police officer in a near future environment in which household robots have become commonplace. Aided by his enthusiastic young partner (played by Cynthia Rhodes), Ramsay is part of the “Runaways Unit” dealing with robots who have malfunctioned, known as “runaways”. Most of his work is quite mundane, until one day he finds himself investigating something that should be impossible: a robot who has broken his programming so dramatically that he has committed murder, having wiped out a whole family. What would Brian from Confuse.com say? It’s certainly enough to make Metal Mickey turn in his grave.
Runaway certainly isn’t terrible and perhaps the Blade Runner similarities are only superficial. In one respect, it is like Blade Runner, however: it flopped. And unlike Blade Runner, its reputation has not soared in the years since.
“An adventure 65 million years in the making” would be the tagline for the film of Crichton’s biggest success Jurassic Park. And though none of Crichton’s works actually took that long to produce (obviously), many did have a long gestation period. Crichton began writing Sphere back when he was in his twenties, seeing it as a potential companion piece to The Andromeda Strain. As it turned out, he didn’t finish it until the late 80s, having basically got stuck, the film appearing a full decade after that.
Sphere begins from an intriguing premise with the discovery of a mysterious craft bobbing along at the bottom of the beautiful briny sea. A mystery begins: is the craft from Earth? Is it an alien ship from space? Or could it even have been sent back in time from hundreds of years in the future?
The book of Sphere was actually decent and with veteran director Barry Levinson (best known for Rainman) at the helm and a cast led by Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson (the last actor by then far more famous than he had been when he appeared in a supporting role in Jurassic Park five years before) the movie version really should have been the same.
Sadly, it was not to be: Sphere was fatally dull.
Rotten Tomatoes damned it thus: ”Sphere features an A-level cast working with B-grade material, with a story seen previously in superior science-fiction films.”
Sphere sank without trace to the bottom of the box office ocean.
As the 1980s neared their end, Crichton then in his late forties might have looked back on these years with some sense of disappointment. None of his books had been adapted into films during the decade, the three films he had directed himself during this period (Looker, Runaway and 1989’s non-science fiction Physical Evidence) were all failures and he would never direct any more films. Despite the novels Congo and Sphere, Crichton was still best known his 1970s work and he was clearly less successful than some younger emerging novelists like Stephen King and John Grisham .
But as a new decade dawned, Crichton’s life was about to change forever…
Book: 1990 Filmed: 1993
Jurassic Park: The Lost World
Book: 1995 Filmed: 1997
Steven Spielberg is famed for knowing what the public want before they even know it themselves. Whether it’s sharks, cute little aliens or heroic archaeologist cum adventurers, Spielberg has his fingers on the pulse of the film-going zeitgeist. He had known Michael Crichton since the seventies. When Crichton began talking about his latest unfinished novel about a theme park populated by resurrected dinosaurs, Spielberg was very interested. Recognising that CGI technology was at a point where it could bring Crichton’s vision brilliantly to life, he bought the rights.
The results almost speak for themselves.
As Gloria Hunniford famously put it, in Jurassic Park the special effects are so good “’you can’t tell where the fake dinosaurs end, and the real ones begin.” But the film is not just a special effects bonanza. Spielberg both took things away and added things to Crichton’s book and screenplay: a child being killed by a dinosaur early on was deemed too horrific, Attenborough’s creator Hammond is less sinister in the film than he was in the book, the famous shuddering glass of water in the first great tyrannosaurus rex scene is largely down to Spielberg’s masterful direction, not Crichton’s prose. But the book and the idea were Crichton’s and he deserved the millions he made from it.
Jurassic Park is the biggest grossing film of all time on its release worldwide and is currently the 21st on the list which is unadjusted for inflation, the only film which is over 20 years old to be in the current top 50. Jurassic World from 2015 is at number 4 (all these figures come courtesy of Box Office Mojo).
Or in other words, you have seen Jurassic Park, your dentist has seen Jurassic Park and anyone anywhere currently in your range of vision has seen Jurassic Park unless they are a baby, a dog or Audrey Hepburn in an advert on your TV.
Indeed, probably virtually everyone in your mobile phone address book has seen it. Don’t believe us? Call them now and check. Go on. We can wait. We’ll still be here when you get back.
In 1994, Crichton achieved a first. Jurassic Park was number one at the box office, E. (which he had also created) was number one on US TV and Crichton’s novel Rising Sun (also made into a film soon after) was at the top spot in the book charts. Top of the book bestsellers, the TV ratings and the box office charts. No one has ever achieved this triple whammy before or since. A very tall man anyway, Michael Crichton really did seem to stand astride the world like a colossus.
Little wonder he was soon under pressure to do a sequel. The Lost World Jurassic Park was Crichton’s first and only sequel and he made compromises: Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcolm returns, for example, despite being killed off in the first book (but having survived the film). In truth, the sequel was far from Crichton’s best book and is probably one of Spielberg’s worst films. But it was a huge box office hit and two more films have appeared since.
Michael Crichton wrote many books in his last years, some of which (although only one more sci-fi book) were filmed. But creatively, he never scaled the heights of the Jurassic Park again.
A truly rubbish film, it seems a shame to end with Timeline, a silly adventure based on Crichton’s enjoyable sci-fi thriller about a group of modern day scientists traveling back in time to 14th century France to rescue their professor.
Crichton’s final years saw him produce more science fiction. Prey (2002) is a thriller dealing with the threat posed by the creation of artificial life and nanobot technology. The rights have been bought by 20th Century Fox although Prey has never yet been filmed. State of Fear (2004) centres on a plot to commit mass murder by a gang of eco-terrorists. By this point, Crichton, now in his sixties, had nailed his colours firmly to the mast of those who like President George W. Bush were in total denial about the existence of climate change. Many felt Crichton’s promotion of his own views on this subject rather marred the novel.
Next is er… Next(2006) which centres on the genetic experimentation on animals. It is, incidentally, nothing whatsoever to do with the Nicholas Cage sci-fi film Next of 2007 which was in fact based on a Philip K. Dick story. His final unfinished sci-fi work Micro (published posthumously in 2011) meanwhile is being planned as a film by Dreamworks.
Nearly eight years after he died, Crichton’s legacy is undeniably mixed with some huge successes and some epic failures. Some films based on his books were terrible as were some of the films he directed himself and indeed some of his own book were quite bad.
But with the Westworld and Jurassic franchises flourishing to this day, Crichton’s contribution to science fiction is undeniable. He wrote science fiction in the truest sense, using his medical expertise to inform hugely entertaining stories. And when at his best as in The Andromeda Strain, Westworld or Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton could be very entertaining indeed.
Box out: Also by Michael Crichton…
Michael Crichton didn’t just write and direct science fiction. Here are just some of the other many strings to his bow…
The young doctor?: A Harvard Medical School graduate, Crichton spent years on clinical rotation in hospitals but never formally gained a licence to practice medicine, choosing to write instead. He came to believe many patients took too little responsibility for their own health.
Weird science: He was sceptical about man-made climate change or global warming. but was interested in aura viewing and clairvoyance.
Tall stories: He wrote some early books under the pen names Jeffery Hudson and John Lange (“lange” is the German word for “long”: Crichton, as mentioned, was very tall). Michael also wrote a book with his brother Douglas under the name “Michael Douglas” in 1970. By coincidence, the now famous actor Michael Douglas (who had still largely been unknown in 1970) would later star in Coma (1978), a medical thriller directed by Michael Crichton as well as Disclosure (1994), a controversial film based on Crichton’s bestselling novel.
Twister (1996): Crichton co-wrote the screenplay for the tornado-based drama starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. He was aided by his then wife Anne-Marie Martin (he married five times). The film was the second biggest grossing film of 1996 and certainly the biggest grossing film of that year which didn’t feature Will Smith repelling an alien invasion.
TV star: In 1994, Crichton created and produced the medical TV drama ER. He only wrote the first episode basing it on a script he’d first written in 1974. He effectively launched a show which would last until 2009.
Dr Who?: The name “Dr Ross” appears at least four times in Crichton’s writing. Most famous is Dr Doug Ross the role which made George Clooney’s name in ER. In Congo (1980), the main expedition to uncover the cause of the mysterious deaths is led by Dr Karen Ross (she is played by Laura Linney in the film). Both the book and film of The Terminal Man (1972/1974) feature Dr Janet Ross, Benson’s attractive psychiatrist (Joan Hackett). In Zero Cool (1969), an early Crichton book (written as John Lange), Dr Peter Ross is a radiologist and the main character.
Other big non-sci-fi successes for Crichton were The Great Train Robbery (1975) filmed by Crichton himself as The First Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery and Rising Sun (1992) and Disclosure (1994), both later made into films, the former also starring Connery.
The 13th Warrior (1999) starring Antonio Banderas is based on Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead (1976). Crichton himself took over the reins as director uncredited from onetime Die Hard director John McTiernan when the film ran into trouble. But he still could not stop it from becoming one of the biggest cinematic flops ever made.
Chris Hallam examines an alien invasion saga with a difference…
It is now been over fifty years since the Tripods first strode boldly onto the British science fiction landscape.
Alien invasion stories were, of course, nothing new, even then. The difference was that in the Tripods’ case, the invasion was already over. Planet Earth was long defeated and seemingly totally in thrall to their new metallic masters: gigantic hemispheres supported by three gigantic legs. Creator John Christopher later admitted he’d “unconsciously stolen” the idea of the Tripods’ appearance from the Martian conquerors of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. He was being modest. There are definite similarities between the two. But there was rather more to the Tripods than that.
The first book to feature the metallic monsters, The White Mountains written by John Christopher (whose real name was Sam Youd) appeared in 1967. Two more books, The City of Gold and Lead and The Pool of Fire soon followed. Then, in the mid-Eighties, the first two books were made into two BBC TV series. A final book, a prequel, When The Tripods Came appeared in 1988. Primarily aimed at a teenage audience, the Tripods had become a science fiction franchise in their own right.
The enemy within
At first it seems as if there is nothing wrong. Aside from a few ominous references to “Tripods” and people being “Capped,” the first few pages of the opening volume (The White Mountains) suggest the book is set at some point in England’s past, specifically Winchester, perhaps in or around the year 1800. Only gradually do we learn the truth. Early on, the young main characters are confused by an ancient sign: “Danger, 6,600 volts”. It means nothing to them, but to us, the meaning is only too clear. This is the future: perhaps a century or more from now. But it is a future where human development has been pushed back to pre-industrial levels. The main characters have never even heard of trains, cars or electricity. It is as if the industrial revolution never happened.
As in Orwell’s 1984, the populace has been fed a misleading portrait of the pre-invasion world. “We know it was the Black Age,” says one character. “There were too many people, and not enough food, so that people starved and fought each other and there were all kind of sicknesses…” It is not simply propaganda which is blighting the path of human development, however.
We do not have to wait long before we meet the source of the problem. The gigantic robotic Tripods stalk the Earth “Capping” humans in a special ceremony organised by the already Capped adults for their young as soon as they reach adolescence. The Caps are metal plates fused to the heads of the humans through which the conquered native population receive orders from the Tripod conquerors. The Capped are not zombies, not exactly. They still talk, eat, drink, do jobs, get married, farm and cook. But their minds are no longer truly their own.
As if this wasn’t chilling enough, we soon learn that as many as one in twenty Cappings fail: the Tripod’s messages are unable to reach the human brain properly, leaving the wearers in a state of perpetual confused delirium. The result is that a sizeable swathe of the populace is made up of the consequences of these malfunctions: sad wandering figures known as “Vagrants”.
It is from one such ‘Vagrant’ – in fact, a man pretending to be one, who goes by the name “Ozymandias”- that the book’s hero, Will Parker comes to realise the truth, only days before he is due to be Capped himself. Discouraged by the slavish Stepford Wife-like quality that befalls the personality of his friend Jack after his Capping (a process that involves being drawn into and briefly taken off by a Tripod), Will is determined to avoid such a fate. He flees and begins a perilous journey, ultimately joined by two colleagues: his cousin Henry and a tall, highly intelligent French boy known as “Beanpole”. They travel to the one region of the planet apparently free of Tripod influence: the white mountains of Switzerland.
Fifty years on, the book remains a compelling read. The Tripods themselves appear relatively infrequently, ensuring maximum impact when they do appear: sometimes as a distant but still unnerving presence lumbering across the horizon or occasionally looming up and lashing out, attacking ships or people apparently on a whim. There are even stories of the Tripods letting captured humans run free before hunting them down for sport. The book has some similarities to John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids in which another group of futuristic children escape their pre-industrial homesteads, albeit for very different reasons.
Origin of the species
But who or what exactly are the Tripods and where do they come from?
Ozymandias, the man who inspires Will’s journey, has a couple of ideas. “There are two stories about them,” he begins. “One is that they were machines made by men, which revolted against men and enslaved them…The other story is that they do not come from this world at all, but another.”
Both of these stories turn out to be partly true. The Tripods do come from outer space but the means by which they took power turns out to be through the man-made medium of television. Once in charge, they ensured humanity reverted to a pre-industrial level of technological development, perhaps to protect themselves from a sophisticated military assault or at the very least to prevent nasty rumours being spread about them on the internet.
Ozymandias also speculates that the Tripods may be just the vehicles for the alien controllers within. We learn more about this in the second novel, The City of Gold and Lead in which Will and another boy, Fritz adopt fake Caps and are able to gain access to one of the domed cities in which the Tripods’ hideous Masters live. Conditions are appalling for humans. The gravity levels are set at a much higher level than usual, to make the Masters feel at home but making it almost impossible for humans to move. Will also discovers that the Masters’ ultimate aim is to flood out the Earth’s oxygen with their own poisonous green air, rendering human survival impossible but ensuring the Masters can wander about as they please. A spaceship providing the means to do this is apparently only a few years away from reaching the Earth.
In the final book of the trilogy, The Pool of Fire, the battle to defeat the Tripods thus becomes very urgent indeed.
The trilogy ended. But with the Tripods having conquered the Earth by harnessing the power of TV, surely it made sense that in the real world, the Tripods should try and conquer the world of TV for themselves? In 1984 and 1985, this finally happened: the Tripods came to BBC1. Whether they may genuinely said to have conquered the medium remains to be seen.
A trilogy in two parts
The first series of The Tripods was broadcast in the popular BBC 1 Saturday afternoon teatime slot, across 13 weeks between September and December 1984. It had been a long struggle: producer Richard Bates had been trying to get the series on the box since the early 1970s.
It was a busy time for sci-fi and fantasy. The US extra-terrestrial series V had just been broadcast on ITV that summer and Ghostbusters was first shown in UK cinemas in December. On the British front, the Fifth Doctor Peter Davison had just regenerated into the Sixth, Colin Baker, Children’s ITV had just shown the terrifying John Wyndham adaptation, Chocky (also produced by The Tripods’ Richard Bates) and in November, the BBC launched its dark Christmas fantasy, The Box of Delights featuring the onetime Second Doctor Who, Patrick Troughton.
The series opened with a caption stating it was the year 2089AD, followed by the appearance of a 19th century style horse and cart. What followed was a generally faithful translation of the book from page to screen. It’s always easy to mock old British TV sci-fi but The Tripods was a big deal at the time and had a reasonable budget. A 12-part series based on the second book appeared in the autumn of 1985.
There was a fair amount of publicity. The series made the cover of the Radio Times and a computer game was produced for the ZX Spectrum. The three young main cast members, John Shackley, Jim Baker and Ceri Seel appeared on Blue Peter and were interviewed by presenters Simon Groom and the late Michael Sundin, while Goldie the dog slept on the floor in front of them. The following year, Groom alongside Peter Duncan and Janet Ellis presented another feature, exploring the second series’ special effects. Janet Ellis described the City of Gold and Lead as “a real triumph of design and special effects” while Peter Duncan (who had played a small part in the 1980 film Flash Gordon) dressed in Will’s costume and was superimposed so as to appear in the City itself where he explained the concept of colour separation overlay. Simon Groom, meanwhile, reassured any nervous viewers that the Masters, the alien controllers of the Tripods were made of nothing more than plastic foam filled with bubbles, enhanced by camera and lighting effects. A similar item appeared on BBC Breakfast Time introduced by Debbie Greenwood. The Daily Express described it as “the most imaginative and compelling teatime adventure in years”.
Some scenes had been filmed at Saltcombe Castle, residence of the famously roguish Tory MP and diarist, Alan Clark. Clark’s diaries record he took a liking to “little Charlotte Long” the aristocratic young actress playing French love interest, Eloise, undeterred by the fact Long was a teenager while Clark, at this point, was married and in his fifties. Tragically, Long was killed in a car accident, aged just 18, while the first series was still being broadcast. Her character appeared only briefly in the second series where she was played by future Howard’s Way actress Cindy Shelley.
Not all the criticism of the series was favourable. The acting was variable in quality and things occasionally got boring. The show frequently got nine million viewers but was still often beaten by the popular quiz show Blockbusters which was broadcast at the same time on ITV. A common complaint was that for a show called The Tripods, the Tripods themselves appeared fairly infrequently. Creator John Christopher himself, meanwhile, was less keen on the heroes’ four-episode digression to a French farm. The farm visit had no equivalent in the actual book, featured no Tripods and was largely irrelevant to the story. Christopher did, however, generally enjoy the adaptation. He had not enjoyed an earlier 1970s film version of his apocalyptic novel Death of Grass (filmed as No Blade of Grass) watching it on TV for a short while but apparently going to bed during the first commercial break.
On an episode of Did You See…? hosted by the Ludovic Kennedy, the sci-fi author Brian Aldiss labelled the series “a rather a clumsy piece of engineering” and likened it to a Hovis bread commercial. “What I don’t like about it is that it’s a certain type of British science fiction which is looking backwards instead of forwards,” he said.
Other guests were more ignorant but no less keen. One, at least, liked the theme music, which to anyone listening today is heavily reminiscent of the theme to long running medical drama, Casualty. (Both were in fact written by the same man: Ken Freeman). The guests also seemed confused as to whether the series was supposed to be set in the still quite recent 1970s or medieval times. None were correct.
As it is, The Tripods will always remain tragically incomplete. Much to the eternal annoyance of fans everywhere and to the lifelong regret of producer, Richard Bates, the show was cancelled before a third series was ever made.
The TV trilogy remains forever unfinished.
Back to the future
The story was not quite over, however. In 1988, twenty-one years after the first book, John Christopher produced a prequel, When The Tripods Came which aimed to explain how the Tripods conquered the Earth in the first place. Set in the near future, the book opens with an early attempt at a physical Tripod attack on Earth which centres on Dartmoor. A dog is killed and the Tripods are subjected to a blast of classical music before being speedily dispatched by jet fighters. The surprise alien invasion attempt appears to have been a lamentable failure. “A Close Encounter of the Absurd Kind,” jokes the teacher of one of the boys almost caught up in the attack. “What sort of goons would dream up something so clumsy and inefficient as a means of getting around?”
A new animated TV show, “The Trippy Show” soon begins mocking the would-be invaders. And here the trouble begins. It soon develops a fanatical cult following. Some people seem unaffected, but for others it seems to have a dramatic impact on them. The main character is horrified when his teenaged sister flies into a hysterical rage when he accidentally fails to video tape the latest episode for her. Fans soon start fleeing their homes to form communes. The Daily Mail reports on “A Trippy Brainwash?” while the teacher quoted earlier begins acting oddly. “I saw you burn that evil newspaper,” he says to some affected pupils, “They had one in the Common-Room and I burned it too…hail the Tripod!” Soon social breakdown, chaos and mass Cappings ensue. Yes, the Caps have appeared for the first time.
The Tripods are back.
Quite aside from the heroic role played by the Daily Mail in proceedings, not all aspects of the book convince. It is never really fully explained how The Trippy Show gets made in the first place. Author John Christopher was well into his sixties by this point and there’s a bit of a dated 1960s feel about the Trippy phenomenon.
Nevertheless, it’s a gripping read. John Christopher died in 2012, aged 89. Disney bought the rights to the franchise in 1997.
Have we really seen the last of the Tripods? Only time will tell.
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?
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.
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.
(Number I saw at the cinema then: 1. Number I have seen now: 10)
Beverly Hills Cop
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Karate Kid
Romancing The Stone
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
I’ve written a fair few film reviews over the years but thankfully have never had to write a review of Ghostbusters. Why “thankfully” you may ask? The simple answer is, because it was such a big film during my early childhood that I really cannot view it impartially. Is it a good film or is it a bad film? I honestly can’t tell.
Perhaps that’s not quite true. I can say fairly confidently that it isn’t a “bad” film per se. It’s also so fondly remembered that it had definitely achieved a degree of classic status. As Adam Buxton has noted, it was also marketed very well. I later had the Atari computer game (“Don’t cross the streams!”). I love the Stay Puft Marshmallow bit. I actually thought he was real for a while too. Not “real”: but I thought he was a genuine US advertising symbol who had been turned into a monster for the film. But he wasn’t. He was entirely made up for Ghostbusters.
Nearly thirty years later, I actually selected Ghostbusters the song to be played at my wedding (although not for the ‘first dance). It was a popular choice. But is it a genuinely good film? I honestly don’t know.
As with E.T., I had a shock early on: the library ghost sequence is easily the scariest bit in a not very scary film. But I was older now (eight, in fact: I’m sure I didn’t see it until 1985) and was now confident enough to still enjoy the film. I went to see it with my mum who didn’t like it at all. I seem to remember her being so bored that she read a magazine during the film. My memory may be playing me false here, however. How would she have read a magazine in the dark? I don’t think she liked it though anyway.
For the first time, I’ve actually seen all ten films listed, so I’ll run through them all quickly. 1984 seems to have been a much better film year than 1983:
Beverly Hills Cop: Really surprised this beat Ghostbusters to the top spot. Okay, but nothing special as I remember. People went nuts about the theme tune though.
Temple of Doom: Okay, but EASILY the worst of the three 1980s Indy films. I first saw it when it was broadcast on TV on Christmas Day a few years later. Part of the problem is that while the first film is based around the mythical Ark of the Covenant and the third one is based around the mythical Holy Grail, this one’s based around the…er… famous temple of Doom? It might as well be called Indiana Jones and ‘the Chamber of Bollocks.” Too silly, too much screeching, too many jumpy bits. And a bit racist, let’s face it.
Gremlins: Was scared to see this for a while after hearing an American relative describe how evil and demonic the Gremlins are. Of course, I saw it eventually, perhaps in my teens and wasn’t scared at all. It’s great fun. And all the “don’t get them wet/don’t feed them after midnight” stuff is genius.
The Karate Kid: Didn’t see this until my thirties when my wife made me watch it to fill a gap in my cinematic education. It’s okay. I suspect I’d like it more now if I had seen it as a child.
Police Academy: The sort of thing I used to end up watching on video at a friend’s house in the late 1980s. Confused me for a while: are all gay men big leather-clad bikers? Generally not a big fan. But I did later see Police Academy 6: City Under Siege at the cinema. No excuse really.
Footloose: Didn’t see this until my twenties. I still like it a lot though. John Lithgow can do no wrong in my eyes. The “Let’s Here It For The Boy” bit always makes me a bit sad though. Chris Penn was clearly so fit and healthy-looking then. What on Earth went wrong?
Romancing The Stone: Good, as I remember. We saw it as an end of term treat at junior school. It was a relatively ‘dangerous’ choice. The sequel’s not as good though.
Star Trek III: It’s easy to forget how popular Star Trek films were at the time. No one really watches them now. This was an odd numbered Star Trek film though and thus DULL.
Splash: An early video choice for the family. Very likeable and the first time I’d seen Tom Hanks in anything.
(Number I saw at the cinema then: 1. Number I have seen now: 7)
Return of the Jedi
Terms of Endearment
When I was six, my older brother took me to see Return of the Jedi.
I grew up in Peterborough, a new town in the East Midlands. As with many British towns then, there were two cinemas in the city centre in this case, the Odeon and the Canon (otherwise known as the ABC and the 123, although I’m not sure which way round it went). Even though I was pretty small, we were easily able to walk in. Later, an out of town multiplex opened and drove both of these out of business. Today, there are no cinemas in the city at all which seems appalling for a city of its size (now about 200,000 people, according to Google). I no longer live there, perhaps partly for this reason.
I loved the film. Like most people I would now agree its the weakest of the three original films but it has more memorable set pieces than, say the Empire Strikes Back and better special effects. I enjoyed the bit with Jabba the Hut, the chase through the woods and, of course, the Ewok stuff towards the end. I remember Yoda dying.
As befits a film saga which started with Episode IV, I’m pretty sure I’d never watched the first two films properly at that point, so presumably didn’t understand a lot that was going on. The first film came out when I was a baby and the second one when I was just three. I didn’t watch them properly until the 1990s. My brother was 17 then and I get the impression he’d already seen all three films more than once.
That December, I was lucky enough to get the Millennium Falcon, Jabba, Admiral Ackbar and other related toys for my Christmas and birthday presents, in addition to the CP3PO and Luke and Leia toys which I’d apparently inherited, presumably from my brother. I also remember owning a Return of the Jedi comic. Not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the franchise at this point, however. I think many people had lost enthusiasm through overexposure. This included George Lucas himself who said he would not make any more films. This contradicted earlier suggestions that he might make three prequels.
Welshman Richard Marquand directed Return of the Jedi incidentally. The importance of the Welsh sci-fi scene is often overlooked.
Otherwise, it must be said, that’s a pretty unimpressive top ten. I don’t think I’ve seen 7, 8 and 9 (I may or may not have seen Sudden Impact). I doubt Mr Mom was even shown at cinemas in the UK. Otherwise, Octopussy (which was actually partly filmed near Peterborough) is the worst James Bond film ever. Trading Places and WarGames are great ideas, poorly executed. Terms of Endearment was okay, I suppose, but surprisingly poor for a Best Oscar winner. I’m surprised Superman 3 didn’t make this list. Not that that was great either.
It should be mentioned the mid-1980s represents the absolute nadir of post-war cinema attendance. Only the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021 have been worse so far. Having peaked in the late 1940s, numbers declined steadily in the 1950s as TV and car ownership rose and went into absolute freefall in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Numbers recovered after 1985, helped no doubt, by the opening of the multiplexes I was moaning about earlier. I’m not sure how typical I was, as I was only a child but until about 1989, I often only went to the cinema once or twice myself.
Part of the problem, of course, was video. My family got their own first video player in 1983. The first films we rented were both time travel-related: Time Bandits and the 1960 Time Machine. I’m not sure what prompted my Dad (who generally dislikes sci-fi) to rent either. But I still love both films.
I also loved Return of the Jedi. Thirty years later, I would get to write the Star Wars Clone Wars annual. I’m glad I got to see one of the original Star Wars films on the big screen. This wouldn’t happen again until I was in my twenties.
(Number I saw at the cinema then: 1. Number I have seen now: 7)
ET – The Extra Terrestrial
An Officer and a Gentleman
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
I remember almost nothing about the year 1982, but I do remember seeing E.T. I mainly remember being terrified.
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my first trip to the cinema. I had only just turned five at the start of the year but I’d already seen Snow White and the Seven Dwarves by this point and Doctor Dolittle (for some reason) on a very early school trip. Neither of these were new films even then, of course, so neither made the top ten in any of the years during which I have been alive. Or ever in Dolittle’s case.
Snow White scared me too: it’s not surprising really. I was a nervous child admittedly, but the Evil Queen seems quite terrifying to me even now. I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way either. Her most chilling moment is when she disguises herself as an old hag so as to trick Snow White into eating the poison apple. It’s a bit odd really: this was the one moment when needs to win her over and she adopts a disguise which makes her look far more horrifying than she looks the rest of the time.
That said, Snow White is at least a classic film. While I think I enjoyed it at the same time, Doctor Dolittle struck me as fairly awful when I saw some of it again a few years later. I may be being harsh here. That said, I remember reading later about how the notoriously difficult Rex Harrison’s high jinks on set essentially ensured that his career was ruined as a result.
Despite my fear, I did manage to enjoy Snow White. Not so, E.T. The alien’s first appearance when E.T’s braying torchlit face appears briefly on screen gave me such a shock that I was so nervous that I was unable to enjoy the rest of the film for fear of it or something happening again.
I’m not sure why I had such an extreme reaction to that bit. Many people are reduced to tears by the film. This has never happened to me. If I cried then it was only out of fear.
Probably about twenty years later, I saw Poltergeist, also on this list, on TV. It’s a good horror but I don’t think it scared me as much then as E.T. did when I saw it in 1982.
The films are, in fact, not dissimilar. Both feature little blonde girls who encounter an alien presence. Steven Spielberg was also heavily involved in both directing E.T. (which was written by the late Melissa Mathison, then about to become the second wife of Harrison Ford) and co-wrote Poltergeist.
I saw nothing else on the list at the cinema but have to date seen seven of the top ten listed above. I never bothered with Annie or Porky’s or the Whorehouse one. I suspect these last two would not have made the top ten in the UK.
48 Hours and Rocky III made little impact on me. Like most people I generally only remember it as “the one with Mr T in.” I did enjoy Tootsie though and on finally watching An Officer and a Gentleman in the 2000s was pretty impressed. Like Saturday Night Fever, it’s a much tougher, grittier film than its reputation suggests.
Incidentally, The Wrath of Khan is also probably the best of the original Star Trek films. Even as a Star Trek fan, I can appreciate this isn’t necessarily very high praise.
1982 was famously the year when many films bombed. Tron, Conan The Barbarian, The Thing. Blade Runner and Cannon and Ball’s The Boys in Blue all flopped, all crushed by the box office juggernaut of E.T. currently the seven biggest blockbuster of all time.
Sadly, although I am certainly no longer scared of it, my early mild trauma has perhaps diminished my appreciation of the film over the years since. In short, I can appreciate it is a classic film but its certainly never been one of my favourites.
And why on Earth does it have such a cumbersome title? “The Extra Terrestrial?” I’ve never met anyone who didn’t just call it “E.T”.
Over seventy years after the death of George Orwell, Richard Bradford’s new biography, convincingly argues the case for the continued importance of the author of Animal Farm and 1984 in the 21st century.
In addition to the biographical details of Orwell’s eventful life – his unhappy schooldays, his years in the Burmese police force, his genuine heroism fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War- the book connects Orwell’s writing to the present by linking it to recent trends such as the endless distortions of the truth by the now disgraced former US President Donald Trump and by the current UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. The book also discusses the bitter antisemitism row which undermined Jeremy Corbyn’s spell as leader of the Labour Party in an intelligent book which demonstrates how Orwell today remains as relevant as ever.
Book review: Orwell: A Man of our Time, by Richard Bradford. Published by: Bloomsbury Caravel, May 13th 2021.