Josh Widdicombe must be one of the busiest comedians working in Britain today. In the week before I wrote this review, I am aware that he has been on Who Do You Think You Are?, the newly-revived Blankety Blank and, as always, alongside Adam Hills and Alex Brooker on Channel 4’s Friday night hit, The Last Leg. And that’s without me even checking properly: goodness knows how many times he’s cropped up on Dave in that time, perhaps on a repeat of his own panel show, Hypothetical or on an old episode of Taskmaster.
This book isn’t a full-blown autobiography, however. It is the story of Josh’s youth growing up in Dartmoor as told through the TV he watched, specifically during the decade of the 1990s. As someone who watched a lot of TV myself during this period (and who still does), this format is very appealing to me. Many of the shows Josh watched were the ones I watched too. Josh can at least justify his childhood TV addiction on the grounds that he grew up in a remote sparsely populated area of Devon. I, however, grew up in Peterborough: not exactly a hub of culture but a busy enough, populous (new) town. What was my excuse?
Anyway, Josh begins by discussing Gus Honeybun, a regional ITV children’s puppet famous to anyone growing up in the south-west of England at almost any point during the last four decades of the 20th century but wholly unfamiliar to me and the vast silent majority of the world who grew up anywhere else. The only reason I’d ever heard of Gus before at all, is because I moved to Devon when in my twenties in the 2000s (presumably the exact opposite of what Josh himself did) and have had people talk to me about this great, mythical, winking TV birthday bunny since. Any young viewers who, like myself, grew up in the area covered by the Anglia ITV franchise were lumbered with a frenzied waving TV puppet called ‘B.C.’ during this period. ‘B.C.’ stood for ‘Birthday Club’ which was also not entirely accidentally, the name of the short segments of TV, ‘B.C.’ himself appeared on, often with Norwich-based presenter, Helen McDermott. Unlike Gus Honeybun whose identity was entirely unambiguous, I am genuinely unsure what animal ‘B.C.’ was supposed to be. Some sort of wildcat? Perhaps a leopard? Maybe even a giraffe? He doesn’t really look anything like either of these. Occasionally, ‘B.C.’ would be absent because “he’s on his holidays today” (translation: he’s in the washing machine). At any rate, as with the solar eclipse of August 1999, I suspect the south-west got the best of it here. ‘B.C.’ may as well have stood for “Bored Children.”
Anyway, this is only one of many items on TV discussed here. Others include:
Neighbours: Like Josh, I too, was a huge fan of the Australian soap for a fairly short period. However, I am over six years older than him (he was born in 1983, I was born at the end of 1976) and here it really shows. I’d largely lost interest by the time he got into it. Despite us both remembering Todd Landers being run over, there is little cross-over (he doesn’t mention ‘Plain Jane Super Brain’ or Dr. Clive Gibbons at all). His discussion of a horrendously racist 1996 storyline in which the character Julie Martin accuses her new Chinese neighbours of killing and barbecuing her missing dog is grimly fascinating though. As is the ‘Big Break’ chapter which details just some of the horrors of Jim Davidson’s career.
Ghostwatch: Unlike Josh (and many others) I never thought this notorious dramatized ‘live broadcast from a real haunted house’ was actually real. Although as he points out, knowing it isn’t real does nothing to diminish just how terrifying to watch it is even today. Or brilliantly made. Even the bit where Michael Parkinson gets possessed.
The Simpsons and I’m Alan Partridge: These chapters are essentially songs of praise about the brilliance of 1990s TV comedy. I am in full agreement.
GamesMaster: I watched it too. And, happily, Josh’s household was so far behind that his memories of 1990s computer games sit happily with my memories of 1980s ones.
In short, I loved the book and would highly recommend it. I agree wholeheartedly with him about some things: Election ’97 was a joyous and memorable night. The death of Diana was a genuinely tragic and shocking event but by time of her funeral had descended into a distasteful grief-fest which much of the population (myself and Josh himself included) felt wholly isolated from.
I disagree with him about other things. The Spice Girls certainly were not “the greatest pop band of all time.” And on points of factual accuracy: nobody ever died of a drug overdose on Grange Hill (Zammo, the school heroin addict never died while Danny Kendall’s death in the series was not drug-related). And Tony Blair famously never once sent an email while in Downing Street.
There was too much football talk in the book for me, but for this he cannot be faulted. He was and is a football fan. It would be unreasonable not to expect him to discuss it. In truth, I could have written a far longer review than this one.
There are chapters on many 1990s TV shows here, amongst them, Gladiators, Badger Girl, Knightmare, You Bet!, TFI Friday, 999, The X-Files and Eldorado. There are no chapters on Twin Peaks, Our Friends in the North, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse, Cracker or Queer as Folk. But so what? There are no chapters on Baywatch, Hollyoaks, The Darling Buds of May, Friends, Byker Grove, South Park or Sweet Valley High either. You cannot write about everything.
Who does he think he is? Josh Widdicombe is a fine comic writer and as Adam Hills would put it, “the pride of Dartmoor.”
At the age of 56, Bob had complained of increased breathlessness as he approached a new tour with his old comedy partner, Jim Moir, better known as Vic Reeves. The prognosis was bad: Bob had a serious heart condition and the tour was cancelled as he underwent triple bypass surgery. Happily, the operation was a success and Bob escaped the horrifying prospect that in common with fellow comedians, Eric Morecombe or Rik Mayall before him or Sean Hughes, Jeremy Hardy or Sean Lock in the years since, he might die while still in his fifties.
Now, like one of the fish he and Paul Whitehouse routinely returns to the water after catching them on their popular BBC series, Gone Fishing, Bob feels he has been given a second chance at life. The years since have seen further acclaimed appearances outwitting David Mitchell on panel show, Would I Lie To You?, a series victory on Taskmaster, launching his Athletico Mince podcast with Andy Dawson, appearing in the aforementioned Gone Fishing and now writing this enjoyable autobiography.
It isn’t all laughs. In addition to his more recent health issues, his father was killed in a car accident when he was just seven and Bob accidentally burnt down the family home after experimenting with a firework indoors soon afterwards. He also fought and successfully overcame both depression and acute shyness while still a young man. But this definitely isn’t a gloomy memoir either: quite the opposite. Bob is a modest man and clearly much more intelligent than he sometimes pretends. He has a good turn of phrase (he describes his old friend, Paul Whitehouse as resembling “a walnut on a stick”) and successfully qualified as a solicitor, practicing for some years in the 1980s. He never even refers to the fact that he won the fiercely competitive series Taskmaster, an omission it is impossible to imagine say, Richard Herring or Ed Gamble ever making.
He lives up to his reputation as a loveable eccentric, for example, extolling the benefits of always having some ‘pocket meats’ on his person (an unhygienic-sounding habit which along with years of heavy smoking and sugary tea, presumably contributed to his heart issues). He remembers his years growing up in 1970s Middlesbrough with real affection. On two occasions in the book, he stages his own little game of Would I Lie To You? inviting the reader to identify which of his anecdotes from both his Middlesbrough days and his later legal career are true and which are false. Frustratingly, he never reveals the answers. I would hazard a guess that nearly all of them really happened. But who can ever really be sure with him?
His career in comedy came about initially entirely by chance as he stumbled into a venue playing host to an early live performance of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out in 1988, after seeking solace after discovering he was being cheated on by a girlfriend earlier that very same day. Bob became a regular member of the audience before gradually getting drawn into the show itself. By the time, the catchphrase-heavy show (“what’s on the end of the stick, Vic?”, “Vic! I’ve fallen,” “You wouldn’t let it lie…”) made its sensational transition to Channel 4 in 1990, Bob was Vic’s co-star. This would remain the case for most of the next thirty years, with Bob only frequently embarking on solo projects or working with someone else in recent years. Although occasionally hampered by his inability to act – notably on the early 21st century revival of Randall and Hopkirk and on the later enjoyable sitcom, House of Fools – Bob has rarely been off our screens for long, winning a cult following with shows such as Catterick and mass audiences in his and Vic’s biggest popular success, the frequently hilarious comedy panel show, Shooting Stars.
Now in his sixties, he is a now a much-loved, warm-hearted figure with an eccentric, unique and often spectacularly original mind. He is a national treasure.
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.
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.”
A politician will be asked many questions during the course of their life. “Are you going to resign, Minister?” and “Did you threaten to overrule him?” are two less friendly examples. But for anyone hoping to launch their own political career, this book asks all the critical questions anyone aspiring to political office will need to answer if they are going to overcome what should be the first major obstacle to achieving power: winning an election. Never mind, “What do I believe in?” or “why do I want to do this?” These are questions you will have to answer for yourself. Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield are seasoned veterans of a number of successful and unsuccessful campaigns. There is no agenda here, other than to educate the reader as to how best to win whatever campaign they are fighting, be it for election to parliament, parish council or to the PTA. It is full of practical advice. Now on it’s third edition, it is first and foremost an essential guidebook on how to get elected. It is not primarily intended as a source of interest for geeky political bystanders like myself. Although it does fulfil that role too, it must be said.
Let us give a few examples from the text. Have you given any thought to whose votes your trying to win? If your answer to this is “everyone’s” then think again. You need to be more targeted than that. The bad news is, you’re not going to win everyone’s votes. The good news is, you don’t have to.
Are you campaigning for continuity or change? Are you trying to win new supporters or consolidate your position with existing ones? And how do you come across to the electorate? Are you, as Steve van Riel has suggested, Darth Vader (ruthless, but effective) or Father Dougal from Father Ted (caring, consensual but ineffective)?
The book tackles everything from broad strokes to the nitty gritty. How do you recruit a loyal campaign team? How should you deal with internet trolls? How do you deal with the media and get your voice heard? How do you drum home a consistent message without sounding robotic or repetitive? How do you attack your opponents without insulting and alienating potential future supporters?
It’s all here in what remains the definitive election campaign handbook of our times.
Book review: 101 Ways To Win An Election (Third Edition), by Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.
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.
The popular TV cartoon series, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe ran from 1983 until 1985. Essentially designed to promote the Mattel toy range of He-Man action figures, the series was based around Adam, a prince on the planet Eternia and his ongoing struggle for wrestle control of Castle Grayskull from his rival, the malevolent Skeletor. By holding his sword (be serious, please!) and exclaiming “By the power of Grayskull!” Adam could transform into the all-powerful He-Man. There were a whole host of other characters, plus a spin-off entitled She-Ra in 1985, which was targeted at a female audience.
Despite being set on a make-believe world, each episode would often end with a straight to the camera moral message to the audience delivered by He-Man himself or by one of the other non-evil characters. These were apparently added to combat concerns that the series was too violent for children. These sequences would sometimes edited out of the British transmissions.
Here are just some of them:
There are no magic drugs (He-Man)
“In today’s story Ilena tried taking a magic potion which she thought would help her. Well, she found out there aren’t any magic potions. And you know what? There aren’t any magic drugs either. Anytime you take one from anybody but your parents or your doctor, you’re taking a very big chance. Your gambling with your health, maybe even your life. Drugs don’t make your problems go away, they just create more.”
Very true. Skeletor would be especially well advised to stay off cocaine as he doesn’t have a nose.
Be careful when doing practical jokes (Man-At-Arms)
“You’ve all seen how Orko’s magical tricks don’t always go the way he planned. Sometimes they backfire on him. The same thing is true of practical jokes. Sometimes they don’t go the way you planned, and you or someone else can get hurt. So be sure and think twice before playing a joke or a trick on anybody. It might not go the way you planned and someone could wind up losing a finger or an arm, or maybe even an eye. And no joke is worth that is it? See you again soon.”
Bloody hell! An arm or an eye? What sort of practical jokes were they thinking of? One involving a chainsaw? Is that what happened to Skeletor’s eyes?
Respect Magna Carta (He-Man and Teela)
Teela: “A very long time ago a wonderful document came into being. It was called the Magna Carta.”
He-Man: “It was the first big step in recognizing that all people were created equal. But even though more laws have been passed to guarantee that, there are still those who try to keep others from being free.”
Teela: “Fortunately Queen Sumana realized in time that only by working together could her city be saved. And that’s the way it should be. Together. Right?”
Er…so they had Magna Carta on Eternia too then? I didn’t know they even had it in the USA.
Don’t ram things too much (Ram Man)
“In today’s story I sure was busy. Boy, did that hurt. Ramming things may look like fun, but it really isn’t. Trying to use your head the way I do is not only dangerous, it’s dumb. I mean you could get hurt badly. So listen to Rammy, play safely and when you use your head, use it the way it was meant to be used, to think. Until later, so long!”
Got that? If you’re ramming while reading this, please stop immediately. Ram Man (not to be confused with ‘Rainman’) was a minor character. He’s wrong about this though. Ramming is definitely fun. Ram Man, thank you man.
Sleep properly (Orko and Cringer)
Orko: “Hi, today we met some people who had slept for over two hundred years. Well, we don’t need that much sleep, but it is important to get enough sleep. So here’s some things to remember. Don’t eat a lot before going to bed, a glass of milk or a piece of fruit makes a good bedtime snack. Try to go to bed at the same time every night, and avoid any exercise or excitement before going to bed. Well, goodnight. Oh, goodnight Cringer!”
Does eating fruit before bedtime really help you sleep? I’m not convinced.Anyone…?
We all have a special magic (Sorceress) “Today we saw people fighting over the Starchild, but in the end her power brought these people together. It might surprise you to know that all of us have a power like the Starchild’s. You can’t see it or touch it, but you can feel it. It’s called love. When you care deeply about others and are kind and gentle, then you’re using that power. And that’s very special magic indeed. Until later, good-bye for now.”
Sorceress was clearly to busy building a nest to read the first moral, Sorceress. Stay off the magic drugs! (Also, looking at this picture suspect Sorceress might have been introduced “for the dads”).
Your brain is stronger than any muscle (Man-At-Arms)
“Being the most powerful man in the universe isn’t all that makes He-Man such a great hero. Being strong is fine, but there’s something even better. In today’s story He-Man used something even more powerful than his muscles to beat Skeletor. Do you know what it was? If you said, ‘his brain,’ you were right. And just like a muscle, your brain is something you can develop to give yourself great power.”
I’m not sure Man-At-Arms was the best choice to put forward this argument, to be honest. He’s got “university of life” written all over him.
Play it safe (He-Man and Battle Cat)
He-Man: “I’d like to talk to you for just a moment about safety. When we go to the beach there are lifeguards there to watch out for our safety. Crossing guards are in the street for the same reason, to help protect us. Now things like that are fine, but we can’t count on someone always being around to protect us. We should practice thinking of safety all the time. So don’t take a chance. And that’s true whether you’re crossing a street, or driving a car. Think safety.” Battle Cat: (Roaring)
The beach? ‘Crossing guards’? Has He-Man been to Earth at some point? And what does “practice thinking of safety” mean? Nice of Battle Cat to contribute here too. Much appreciated, thanks.
Learn from experience (He-Man and Battle Cat)
He-Man: “As we’ve just seen Skeletor went back into the past to make evil things happen. In reality no one can go back into the past, that’s only make-believe. But we can try to learn from the past, from things that have happened to us, and try to apply them toward being better people today. Remember, it’s today that counts. So make it the best day possible. Until next time this is He-Man wishing you good health and good luck.”
Battle Cat: (Roaring)
Learn from he mistakes of history. But also live for today: that’s all that matters. Make your mind up, please!
No job is unimportant (He-Man)
“Have you ever had a job to do you thought was boring and unimportant. We all have. Opi did. But no job is unimportant. Opi learned that if he’d done the little jobs his father gave him, things would not have gone wrong. So remember, any job worth doing is worth doing well. No matter how dull it may seem at the time. Bye for now.”
Sadly, this one isn’t true. Some jobs are both boring and unimportant. Composing the moral messages used on the end of children’s TV cartoons, for example.
Fighting is bad (Teela)
“Some people think the only way to solve a difference is to fight. Skeletor for example, his answer to every problem is to fight. He doesn’t care who’s right or wrong. He thinks that might makes right. Well, it doesn’t. He-Man knows that, even with all his power, he always tries to avoid fighting. Fighting doesn’t solve problems. Fighting only makes more problems. See you soon.”
Bloody hell! This is a bit rich. He-Man spends half of every episode fighting.
Read a book (He-Man)
“I hope you enjoyed today’s adventure. You know television is not the only way to be entertained by an exciting story. There is another way; it’s called reading. And one of the wonderful things about books is that they allow you to choose whatever kind of adventure you like; a trip with an astronaut, an adventure with the great detective Sherlock Holmes, a comedy, anything. You can find it in a book at your school or neighbourhood library. Why I’ll bet there are even some good books right in your own home just waiting to be read.”
In other words, in the immortal words of the 1980s UK kids’ show, ‘Why Don’t You?’ “switch off your TV set and go out and do something less boring instead.” Especially now this episode of He-Man has finished.
Alan Moore is the undisputed bearded Northampton-based God of the British comics realm. Yet he has been notoriously prickly on the subject of adaptations of his own work. He has declined to even watch any of the four major films directly based on his comics and in recent years has in recent years refused any payment. But is he right to do so? Is The Watchmen really in the same League as the Extraordinary Gentlemen? Is the film of V From Vendetta really From Hell? Chris Hallam checks it out…
In 1977, Alan Moore, then a twenty-four-year old employee of the Northampton gas board decided to quit his job and try to pursue a career as a comic writer instead. The timing, to some, might have seemed odd. Moore was not rich and was married with a baby on the way. But for Moore it was a “now or never” moment: “I knew that if I didn’t give up the job” (which he hated) “and make some sort of stab at an artistic career before the baby was born that…I knew I wouldn’t have been up for it once I had those big imploring eyes staring up at me,” he said later. “So, I quit.”
The gamble paid off. First, it was just a few cartoons in heavy metal magazines and the odd Tharg’s Futureshock for the new science fiction comic 2000AD. But then the trickle turned into a flood. Soon came V For Vendetta in Warrior, The Ballad of Halo Jones and then, amongst many other things, Watchmen, perhaps the most acclaimed graphic novel ever made. Alan Moore was perhaps the biggest name in British comics to emerge in the Eighties.
Soon inevitably people began to talk of filming his works and Moore was initially keen enough. A film, Return of the Swamp Thing (1989), based on a DC strip by Moore was filmed. But early plans for a V For Vendetta TV series and a film of Watchmen faltered. The timing was not yet right.
But by the start of the 21st century, following the success of Blade and The X-Men, filmmakers began filming every comic they could get their hands on: Road To Perdition, Ghost World, A History of Violence and TV’s The Walking Dead have all been consequences of this trend.
But the four attempts to film Alan Moore’s works in the first decade of the millennium had somewhat mixed results. And they would not make their creator happy at all.
“The idea that there is something prestigious about having your work made into a film, that is something which infuriates me because it seems to be something that everybody else in the industry absolutely believes.” Alan Moore.
A Ripping Yarn?
The comic: From Hell (1989-1996) produced with illustrator Eddie Campbell.
The film: From Hell (2001) directed by the Hughes Brothers and starring Jonny Depp, Heather Graham, Jason Flemying, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Sir Ian Richardson.
Moore’s take on the notorious Jack the Ripper case is probably one of Moore’s less accessible stories. At one point, for example, it draws a rather strange connection between the 1888 Whitechapel murders and the conception of Adolf Hitler in Austria-Hungary, two events which admittedly must have occurred at about the same time. From Hell thus seemed rather an odd choice for the big screen treatment.
The Hughes’ Brothers broke with the original story early on choosing to make the story a whodunnit (something Moore had gone out of his way to avoid doing) and by viewing it from the perspective of Inspector Abberline (Johnny Depp’s performance virtually identical to his turn as Ichabod Crane in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow in 1999), rather than from the viewpoint of the Ripper himself, who in the graphic novel is identified early on as Sir William Gull (Ian Holm).
As Moore’s biographer Lance Parkin has written, Moore’s approach to his films was more one of indifference than outright hostility at this stage. He accepted payment for the film and was apparently pleased by the casting of actress Heather Graham as she had had a small part in one of his favourite TV series, Twin Peaks. But having recognized it was not going to be very similar to the original story early on, Moore distanced himself from the film and has never bothered to watch it.
“I’d be quite happy if they made Carry On Ripping. It’s not my book, it’s their film.” Moore’s verdict is correct. From Hell is a silly over the top film full of clichés and bad acting.
A League Of Their Own?
“Mr. Alan Moore, author and former circus exhibit (as ‘The What-Is-It from Borneo’), is chiefly famed for his chapbooks produced with the younger reader in mind. He astounded the Penny Dreadful world with such noted pamphlets as ‘A Child’s Garden of Venereal Horrors’ (1864), and ‘Cocaine and Rowing: The Sure way to Health’ (1872) before inheriting a Cumbrian jute mill and, in 1904, expiring of Scorn.”Author description of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (illustrated by Kevin O’Neill, 1999-2007).
The film: Directed by Stephen Norrington (2003) this starred Sir Sean Connery, Shane West, Jason Flemyng, Peta Wilson and Stuart Townsend.
In print: Not to be confused with the 1960 classic British movie crime caper starring Jack Hawkins or the early 21st century Royston Vasey-based dark BBC comedy series (both actually just called The League of Gentlemen), this witty Victorian pastiche was reportedly optioned before artist Kevin O’Neill had even finished drawing the first issue. Bringing together the cream of Victorian fiction – Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, Allan Quatermain and Jekyll and Hyde amongst others – into a formidable superhero-style team, this should have been perfect for the big screen. In theory…
On screen: A commercial success, LXG (as some promotions referred to it) was an unruly disaster and probably the worst Moore adaptation yet made. Minor changes were made such as the introduction of characters Tom Sawyer and Dorian Gray to the line-up (there were also issues affecting the copyright of the Invisible Man’s character: in the end “an” rather than “the” invisible man appeared). But these seemed unimportant next to the fact the film as a whole, was a complete travesty of the original. It was also a notoriously bad shoot with Sir Sean Connery (playing King Solomon’s Mines star Quatermain) falling out with director Stephen “Blade” Norrington. According to some reports, the two men came to blows. Connery, a screen legend then in his seventies, vowed never to be in a film again. He never has. Norrington has never directed any films since either.
Moore’s view: Worse was to come as a lawsuit was brought against the film alleging it had plagiarized another script called Cast Of Characters. Moore, who had never wanted the film anyway was cross questioned for hours based on the suggestion that he had only written the comic as a front to disguise the film’s supposed unoriginality. The case was settled out of court but in the meantime Moore was understandably very annoyed indeed.
Verdict: A film already apparently guilty of the crime of ending Sean Connery’s long film career, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen also turned Alan Moore off film versions of his comics forever. Not that he was ever exactly super keen anyway…
The comic: V For Vendetta (1982-1989), art by David Lloyd (and Tony Weare).
The film: 2006 film directed by James McTeigue, written by the Wachowskis and starring Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Fry and the late John Hurt amongst others.
A chilling portrait of a futuristic Britain that has succumbed to fascism after a limited nuclear war has destroyed much of the rest of the world, the “hero” (if hero, he be) is V, a mysterious masked Jacobin vigilante prone to speaking in strange verse, nasty practical jokes and setting up impressive and time-consuming domino displays for his own amusement. But who exactly is he? And can he save young Evey Hammond from the dark forces which threaten to engulf her?
One big problem with filming V For Vendetta was the story’s obsession with the concept of November 5th. Virtually everyone outside the UK is unfamiliar with Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot and so a short sequence explaining the idea was added for the benefit of our American cousins. The nuclear war of the original is replaced by a backstory involving a devastating epidemic but generally the film is surprisingly faithful to the original. This is, after all, a film in which the hero is a terrorist who blows up underground trains which was released only a few months after the July 2005 bombings. In short, some bits don’t work that well – V’s strange rhetoric doesn’t always work on screen and the Benny Hill like sequences in the TV show seem a bit odd. Other elements such as Stephen Rea’s performance as an investigating officer and the near perfect recreation of the powerful ‘Valerie’ sequence from the comic, work brilliantly.
Moore’s view: Although artist David Lloyd enthusiastically endorsed the film, Moore disassociated himself entirely even went going so far as getting his own name removed from the credits. He also expressed anger (apparently still without having seen it) that the Wachowskis had used his story to (he argued) satirize Bush era America, rather than maintaining the Thatcher-era anti-fascist perspective of the original.
Verdict: Although not a complete triumph by any means, V For Vendetta was reasonably well received by most audiences and critics. It’s certainly interesting enough that you can’t help wishing Moore would lift-up his own self-imposed mask for a moment and take a sneaky peak at it.
The comic: Moore’s masterpiece completed with artist Dave Gibbons between 1986 and 1987.
The film was directed by Zach Snyder in 2009 starred Billy Crudup, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Goode and Jeffery Dean Morgan.
Summary: A brilliant and complex saga which transformed the world of comics forever, The Watchman incorporates superheroes, pirates, nuclear apocalypse and an all-powerful blue man who likes sitting around in space.
On screen: After a fan-pleasing, superbly made title sequence in which we get to see such sights as Dr. Manhattan meeting President Kennedy (before The Comedian, played by Jeffery Dean Morgan helps assassinate him), this does a largely faithful job of translating Moore’s vision to the big screen. It’s not perfect: Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias is a bit too obviously villainous from the outset and many other scenes seem unnecessarily violent. But some sequences– the creation of Dr. Manhattan, for example – are, like the Valerie sequence in V For Vendetta – transferred perfectly from the comic. Dean Morgan is especially well cast as the ultra-conservative Comedian, a man who despite no obvious super powers, successfully wins the Vietnam War for the US, kills JFK, and prevents the Watergate Scandal from happening. The three-and-a-half-hour DVD extended version even incorporates animated Tales of the Black Freighter sequences into the film, pirate stories which even somewhat overwhelmed the narrative in the original comic.
Some viewers might be left wondering: would deliberately unleashing a sudden massive unexplained explosion really would be the best way to defuse a Cold War superpower stand-off. They might also ask: Did Richard Nixon really look like that? Or if Dr. Manhattan is genuinely quite annoying. But hey! These are mostly failings of the comic, not the film.
Moore’s view: Terry Gilliam had originally planned to direct The Watchmen in the Eighties with Arnold Schwarzenegger tipped to play Dr. Manhattan, Robin Williams, the sinister Rorschach, Jamie Lee Curtis the Silk Specter and Richard Gere, Nite Owl. Gilliam was ultimately unhappy with Sam Hamm’s script which saw Ozymandias travelling back in time to prevent Dr. Manhattan’s creation, thus changing the course of the Cold War and ultimately saving the world. The project fell apart. Twenty years later, it was resurrected, by which time Moore was dead against it.
Verdict: Probably the best film adapted from Moore’s works. A shame he hasn’t seen it really. He’s not alone though: although not an outright flop, The Watchman disappointed at the box office.
Faith No Moore
The Watchmen did not mark the end of TV and movie versions of Alan Moore’s comic stories. We haven’t even mentioned Constantine (2005) starring Keanu Reeves and future Oscar winners Rachel Weitz and Tilda Swinton which was based on a character Moore had created for DC. The reasonably well-received film spawned a short-lived TV series starring Matt Ryan and will soon appear in animated TV form. There is talk of rebooting The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and a TV series of The Watchmen is in development.
Perhaps most significantly The Killing Joke, an animated film version of Moore’s celebrated Batman story produced with Brian Boland in 1988 was released in 2016. Reviews were bad.
Whatever, we may think of the movie and TV versions of the works of Alan Moore, however, one thing is clear: forty years after he started to build a career in comics, he is powerless to stop other people making films of his work.
How soon is too soon to write about the history of a particular time or place?
Following on from his earlier three excellent volumes which took us from the start of the 1970s to the dawn of the new millennium, Alwyn Turner’s new book picks up the English story at the time of New Labour’s second massive General Election victory in 2001 before dropping us off again at the time of David Cameron’s surprise narrow win in 2015. The stage is set for the divisive Brexit battles of the last five years and for the divisive leadership of the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn after 2015, but the narrative clearly stops before getting to either. Turner’s book is packed full of reminders of this eventful and turbulent period. Who now remembers Pastygate? Cleggmania? Russell Brand’s dialogue with Ed Miliband or Robert Kilroy Silk’s thwarted battle to take over UKIP? Viewed from the perspective of the current Coronavirus pandemic which, writing in July 2021, has thus far totally dominated the third decade of the 21st century, Turner’s social history of this busy and already seemingly historically quite distant fourteen year period already seems very welcome.
It is not all about politics, of course. As before, Turner takes a good look too at changes in society as viewed through the prism of TV, literature and other developments. No doubt he will one day have much to say about the recent Euro 2020 Finals and subsequent race row. Here, for example, we get a thorough comparison between the different styles of comedians, Jimmy Carr and Roy Chubby Brown. Both are edgy and deliberately tackle sensitive subjects for their humour. Carr, is however, middle-class and Cambridge-educated while Brown never conceals his working-class origins. Carr is frequently on TV, while Brown, although popular, is never allowed on. But, as Turner points out, it is not simply a matter of class. Carr is deliberately careful, firstly never to go too far or to appear as if he is endorsing any (or most) of the dark things he talks about. Brown is much less cautious. He frequently pushes his jokes into genuinely uneasy territory and occasionally seems to be making crowd-pleasing anti-immigration points which totally lack any comedic punchline. Whereas Carr clearly has a carefully constructed stage persona, it is unclear where the stage Chubby Brown begins and the real Chubby Brown ends.
Class comes up a fair bit in the book. Turner identifies a definite resurgence in the popularity of posher folk in public life during this period. Some are obvious: TV chefs such as Nigella Lawson, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Chris Martin of Coldplay, the rise of Boris Johnson and David Cameron, the last becoming the first Tory leader to come from a public school background in forty years in 2005. Others are less obvious: musician Lily Allen was privately educated as were Gemma Collins and some of her other The Only Way is Essex companions. Even Labour’s Andy Burnham went to Cambridge.
The underrated Russell T. Davies 2003 TV drama, Second Coming in which Christopher Eccleston’s video shop assistant surprisingly claims to be the Son of God and indeed turns out to really be him. The phone hacking scandal. The London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. The rise and fall of George Galloway. The 2011 London riots. The Jimmy Saville affair and other scandals. The TV show, Life on Mars. All these topics are revisited by Turner in intelligent and readable fashion.
Other interesting nuggets of information also come in the footnotes. “By 2009 over 9 per cent of Peterborough had come to the city from overseas.” Alexander Armstrong was the first man to play David Cameron in a TV drama in 2007’s The Trial of Tony Blair (aired during Blair’s final months in office). We also get reminders of some of the better jokes of the period in this manner. Frank Skinner’s “George Osborne has two types of friends: the haves and the have yachts.” Or the late Linda Smith’s take on the 2005 Tory election slogan: “Are you sinking like we’re sinking?”
We are also kept informed of the main biscuit preferences of our political leaders, an issue Gordon Brown, a brilliant man, but always uneasy with popular culture, characteristically messed up answering.
There is less about music, although Turner does at one point suggest that the Spice Girls “might have been the last group that really mattered, that meant something beyond record sales and outside their own constituency.”
Turner does well to retain a position of political neutrality here and is especially good at retracing the early machinations on the Labour Left and the Eurosceptic Right which seemed irrelevant at the start of this era but which by the end of it came to seem very important indeed. It is, indeed, a very depressing period for anyone on the liberal left. In 2001, the Lib Dems under their dynamic young leader, Charles Kennedy seemed poised to become the nation’s second party. By 2015, Kennedy was dead and the party wasn’t even registering in third place in terms of either seats or share of the vote. In 2001, Tony Blair won a second huge landslide majority, seemed to have the world at his feet and was one of the most highly regarded political leaders of recent times. Furthermore, no one serious in political life was even remotely contemplating withdrawing from the European Union.
What changed? Read this endlessly fascinating book to find out.
Book review: All In It Together, England in the Early 21st Century, by Alwyn Turner. Published by: Profile Books. Available: now.
Geoff Norcott is that rarest of breeds: a popular and funny right-wing comedian.
Whereas, even only a few years ago, most people would have struggled to name even one living British comedian with conservative views (particularly when the list is shortened further to exclude those who are not openly racist), Norcott has risen to fame largely on the basis of his appearances as the ‘token right-winger’ on the BBC’s excellent topic comedy show, The Mash Report. The show was cancelled earlier this year, largely as a result of concerns by nervous BBC execs that, Norcott’s contribution aside, it was too left-wing.
Some would doubtless challenge me for even agreeing to review this book and thus provide the oxygen of publicity to someone who is not only a self-confessed Tory voter and a Brexiteer.
To these people I would point out first that Norcott clearly represents the more acceptable face of the Right. He is clearly not racist at all and in 2019 was appointed as a member of a BBC Diversity Panel with the aim of ensuring the corporation represents a broad cross section of the public’s views. He is also, it must be mentioned, deeply sceptical about the leadership skills of Boris Johnson. This is a definite point in his favour, even if his scepticism was not quite sufficient to prevent him from helping vote Johnson back into power in the December 2019 General Election.
Secondly, I would argue strongly that we shut out voices such as Norcott’s at our peril. Nobody’s life is perfectly typical of anything, but Norcott seems to be a textbook example of the sort of voter Labour could once, perhaps complacently rely on to support them as recently as the 1990s and 2000s but who they have since lost with fatal consequences. With much of Norcott’s assessment of Labour taking the form of critical advice rather than flagrant attacks, he is certainly worth listening to.
By coincidence, me and Geoff Norcott are almost exactly the same age. He was born six days earlier than me in December 1976. Like me, his first ever experience of voting in a General Election as a twenty-year-old was for New Labour in May 1997. He describes his feeling on leaving the voting booth:
“It was probably the first and last time I ever felt total conviction about the party I voted for,” I feel the same. It was a combination of the perhaps misplaced certainties of youth. But it was also, I think, something about the political mood of 1997.
Like me, he returned, perhaps slightly less enthusiastically to voting Labour in 2001. Thereafter, our paths diverge. I came very close to voting Lib Dem in 2005, largely because of my opposition to the war in Iraq (I eventually held my nose and voted for my local Labour candidate who was anti-war, but lost her seat anyway). Norcott doesn’t mention his views on the war, but did vote Lib Dem, partly because like me, he admired their then leader, the late Charles Kennedy, but also as part of a slow journey he was undergoing towards the Tories. In the last four General Elections held since 2010, he voted Conservative. He also voted Leave in 2016.
In truth, Geoff Norcott, although from a traditionally Labour family had been showing conservative instincts from a young age. He had an entirely different upbringing to me. Mine was comfortable and middle-class, his was marred by both poverty and parental divorce. He is sceptical about the welfare system based on his own family experiences and is less enthusiastic than most people are these days about the NHS. He felt endlessly patronised while at Goldsmith College, London in the mid-1990s and has come away with a lifelong scepticism about left-wing middle-class liberals, many of whom frequently serve as targets for his humour today, (for example, on the marches for a second ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit: “The idea that loads of liberals having a day out in London with chopped kale power salads and terrible chants in some way spoke for the country was laughable”). He has had some tough battles on Twitter. Critics of his appearances on Question Time have variously attacked him for either being rich and self-interested or too common to be on TV. He now seems to be convinced Twitter is a hotbed of left-wing sentiment. I’m not sure it is.
The book takes us through his difficult early years, a brief stint in media sales, his work as a teacher, his time entertaining the troops overseas, a series of personal tragedies a few years ago through to his final success as a successful and reasonably well-known comedian and now author, settled with his family in Cambridgeshire.
Needless to say, I don’t agree with him on many things. He believes the Blair and Brown governments spent too much: I don’t think they did particularly, and even if they did, this certainly does not explain why the credit crunch happened. His main criticism of people like the Milibands and Keir Starmer seems to be largely based on the fact that they are middle-class and cannot claim any link to working-class people. In my view, this is true but is surely dwarfed by the facts that the their opponents men such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson were born into lives of such immense privilege to the extent that these leaders have no knowledge or interest in reducing poverty at all. I suspect, at root, like many right-wing people, Norcott thinks there is something hypocritical about anyone with money having a social conscience about anything, while his tolerance for rich leaders who openly don’t give a toss about society is much greater. This has never been my view. My horror at the Tory record on homelessness, unemployment and underfunding of the health service has always been sufficient to drive me away me from ever voting for them, particularly when combined with the frequent right-wing tendency (not shared by Norcott himself) to either be racist or to blame many of the weakest and poorest in the world for many of society’s ills.
Geoff Norcott is, of course, now successful enough to be considered middle-class himself and undoubtedly has many left-wing comics amongst his friendship circle. None of which should detract from this sometimes funny, enjoyable and often useful book which is packed with useful phrases such as ,”when you demonise a voter, you lose them forever” which many of us would do well to remember.
Book review: Where Did I Go Right?: How The Left Lost Me, by Geoff Norcott. Published by: Octopus. Available: now.
I saw 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.
(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.
Sixty years on, Theodore H. White’s ground-breaking account of the 1960 US presidential elections is still regarded as a landmark in political reporting. White’s first book and to a lesser extent, his three subsequent volumes on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 contests have provided a template for all such works produced since, for example, the late Richard Cramner’s massive account of the 1988 Bush Vs Dukakis contest, What It Takes or Mark Halperin and John Heilemann books on the 2008 and 2012 elections won by Barack Obama.
White died in 1986, but his writing still provides a unique and fascinating insight into these four contests whose outcomes would prove to have dramatic consequences for both America and the world.
The 1960 elections had everything. Two youthful strong rival candidates both destined in their time to become important and controversial leaders, a fiercely fought primary campaign, a charismatic outsider battling against religious bigotry, an ‘October surprise’ (the upset caused by the TV debates) and a nail-biting photo finish.
White admittedly had a lot to work with but his spell-binding and thorough account is at least as fascinating in discussing the ‘nearly men’ such as Hubert Humphrey, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon Johnson and Nelson Rockefeller as it is about the eventual final nominees, John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon.
After a 2020 election which ended with only the second Roman Catholic being elected to the White House without the subject ever really being raised, its easy to forget how serious an electoral obstacle Kennedy’s Catholicism was considered in 1960 when he ultimately became the first.
The personality of Richard Nixon inevitably looms large throughout these four volumes. He was the Republican nominee in three of these four elections (1960, 1968 and 1972), the winner of two (1968 and 1972) and played a smaller role in the 1964 campaign. He comes across badly in this first volume. Initially, the clear favourite, he squanders his advantage, proving a difficult and awkward candidate losing the support of the popular incumbent President Eisenhower and lumbering his campaign with a foolhardy commitment to visit all fifty American states. He was lucky not to lose by more and luckier still to get a chance to stage a comeback.
Did White know about Kennedy’s relentless womanising? We do not know. He was certainly not alone in not reporting them if he did know, however, as non-reporting of candidates’ private lives was certainly the convention at the time. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were to be less fortunate in this regard. Nothing is also said about Mayor Daley’s electoral chicanery in Chicago. Kennedy would have won comfortably in the electoral college without Chicago anyway. Although it is discussed, less is made of the TV debates’ impact by White than has been made since. This is nevertheless a masterful account and the best of the four books in the series.
Foregone conclusions rarely make for exciting elections and White is unfortunate that Democrat President Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory over Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was never really in doubt. White delivers an excellent account of the aftermath of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, however, and reminds us just how brilliant a candidate and a president LBJ was in his first year in office, regardless of what happened later. He also reminds us just how terrible a choice Republicans made when they opted for Barry Goldwater (“extremism in defence of liberty is no vice”) over the far more palatable and moderate, Nelson Rockefeller, who would become Gerald Ford’s vice president, a decade later.
“In your heart, you know he’s right,” Goldwater fans insisted. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts!” critics countered. In the end, Goldwater allowed himself to be painted into a corner and portrayed (White argues unfairly) as a potential welfare abolitionist and nuclear hawk. He lost to LBJ by a record margin. Again, less is made of things which have come to be seen as important since. Little is made of the landmark ‘Daisy’ Johnson TV campaign broadcast (in which a little girl picking daisies in a field is unexpectedly nuked. It was later parodied on The Simpsons) and ex-actor Ronald Reagan’s career-defining speech in favour of Goldwater is not mentioned at all.
1968 was a US presidential election year like no other, more violent, traumatic and divisive than any before or since. The previous election in 1964 already seemed like a distant memory by the start of 1968, as the United States was reeling from a dramatic breakdown in law and order and mounting division over the increasingly bloody quagmire in Vietnam. LBJ seemed exhausted, his ambitious and admirable Great Society programme side-lined forever by the escalating war. Despite this, the president (who was eligible for one more term, having served the fourteen remaining months of the assassinated John F. Kennedy’s remaining term, plus one of his own) was still generally expected to win.
But shock followed shock in 1968. First, the US suffered a major setback in Vietnam as the Viet Cong launched the Tet Offensive. Then, the little known senator Eugene McCarthy scored an impressive 41% in the New Hampshire primary: not a win but a major shock to the White House. This prompted Johnson’s hated rival Bobby Kennedy to enter the race. Like McCarthy, he ran on an anti-war ticket.
At this point, Johnson astonished the world by announcing his withdraw from the race declaring: “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President,” in a televised address in March. Concerns that he might suffer another heart attack were a factor, something he confided to his Vice President Hubert Humphrey who effectively ran in his stead. He did indeed die following a heart attack on January 22nd 1973. Had he won and served another full term, his presidency would have ended just two days before.
White explores all of the candidates. The short campaign of Bobby Kennedy which would ultimately be a cut short by an assassin’s bullet. Eugene McCarthy: an often irritating candidate who lost all heart in the 1968 contest following RFK’s death. George Wallace, the racist demagogue running as an independent. And Humphrey, the eventual Democratic nominee after a disastrous Chicago convention marred by the brutal police suppression of anti-war protests outside. Despite a terrible campaign, “Humph” came surprisingly close to winning.
But he was narrowly beaten by Richard Nixon, ultimately a disastrous choice for presidency. Nixon had already seen off challenges from political newcomer Ronald Reagan and George Romney, (the father of Mitt Romney who was beaten by Obama in 2012). Romney Senior’s campaign was scarcely less inept than his son’s. Witnesses have described it as “like watching a duck try to make love to a football.”
There is no happy ending here. Nixon won after sabotaging Johnson’s attempts to secure peace in Vietnam before the election, despite publicly expressing support for them. This isn’t discussed here (White would not have known about these behind the scenes shenanigans) though at times White does show a great deal of warmth towards Nixon here, something he would probably come to regret later.
By 1972, White’s books were having a political impact in themselves. At one point, we are told the Democratic nominee George McGovern first decided to run for the highest office after being inspired by White’s first Making of the President book back in 1962. The liberal McGovern would go onto be buried in a forty-nine state Nixon landslide. Today, in 2021, both Nixon and McGovern are long gone (McGovern died in 2012, aged 90) but for the first time in these volumes, a clear link can be forged to the present. A number of people mentioned (Gary Hart, Ralph Nader, Donald Rumsfeld, even William Calley of My Lai) are still alive, while we know, though it isn’t mentioned here, that the young Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham first met on the McGovern campaign. Also:
“And J. Caleb Boggs of Delaware of whom it was said had shaken half the right hands in his thirty years in public office, being defeated for the Senate by a young man, Joseph Biden Jr., who would reach the Constitutional Senatorial age of thirty, only a few weeks before he was due to take office.”
No other president in US history was making an impact in public life almost a full half century before they were in the White House. Reagan, after all, was not yet even an actor, 48 years before he became president. Trump, at that stage, was still a spoilt millionaire’s son. Perhaps nothing ever really changed.
Anyway, the shadow of Watergate looms large over the book. The initial summer 1972 break-in seems to have had no real impact on the November election. By the time, White finished the book, it was clearly becoming a major scandal although it was not yet at all obvious that it would ultimately bring down Nixon himself.
This election also spawned Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, from Hunter S. Thompson, a writer far more anti-Nixon and pro-McGovern than White was and indeed, rather fonder of including illustrations in his books.
In truth, you would have to be very, very, very interested in the machinations of the 1970s US Democratic Party indeed to find every page of either this or Thompson’s book wholly riveting. Despite this, it is still tempting to wonder how White might have covered the Ford-Carter contest of 1976 or perhaps Ronald Reagan’s 1980 and 1984 campaigns. As it is, we should be grateful enough for these four volumes which already tell us so much about a nation which had transformed beyond all recognition in the comparatively short period between 1960 and 1972.
Book review: Four volumes: The Making of the President, 1960, 1964, 1968 and 1972, by Theodore H. White. Published by: Harper Collins.
Will Young is a pop star, who first became famous as the victor of the popular ITV talent show, Pop Idol in 2002. Now in his early forties, this short memoir traces the course of his life so far as a gay man. It is an interesting companion piece to Tom Allen’s 2020 memoir, No Shame as well as to the recent Channel 4 drama, It’s A Sin. Being born gay is not easy for anyone and despite a relatively supportive and comfortable background, Young has had his struggles growing up in the 1980s and 1990s and again as a famous person in the 21st century where he has occasionally encountered public attacks from the likes of the Daily Mail, DJ Chris Moyles and Jeremy Clarkson amongst others. But this is a very good book and very readable too. I was slightly less keen on the later stages of the book detailing his mental health struggles of the last decade. I don’t doubt that these were very significant and difficult experiences for hìm at that time. However, in writing about them, he generally adopts a therapy-like way of writing which is less accessible than the rest of the book. But overall, this is a very compelling and readable portrait of what it means to be a gay man in the Britain of the year late 20th and early 21st century.
Book review: To Be A Gay Man, by Will Young. Published by: Virgin Digital.
DCI Cassie Stewart and DI Sunny Khan (Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar) are back, doing what they do best: investigating unresolved murder cases from the past. Last time, it was the discovery of the remains of a teenage girl on a building site just off the M1 which brought a group of middle-aged onetime Millennium partygoers under suspicion. This time, it’s the discovery of the headless corpse of a Millwall fan in a freezer which threatens to provide an unwelcome trip down memory lane for a new bunch of suspects. But who are they? All have secrets in their past and now appear to have moved on. An old ‘Marathon’ chocolate bar wrapper (from just before the unpopular decision was made to rename the brand ‘Snickers’) is just one of a number of clues suggesting the crime was committed back in 1990. But who is ultimately responsible for the death?
Could it be the slightly chippy Ram Sidhu (Phaldut Sharma) currently preoccupied with his wife’s pregnancy? Or Liz Baildon (Susan Lynch) who seems to have the elderly mother from hell (Sheila Hancock?) Or doting dad and family man, Dean Barton (Andy Nyman), committed to charity work but involved in some dodgy business dealings on the side? Or seemingly perfectly settled Peak District dwelling family therapist, Fiona Grayson (Liz White, somehow perfect in the role despite technically being about ten years’ too young for it?)
As usual, the joy of Unforgotten stems from seeing these often seemingly perfect modern lives slowly unravel as more and more mysteries about past events and the characters involved are slowly revealed. There is also, as before, the wonderful central relationship between Walker and Bhaskar’s characters. With Sunny now relatively settled as he moves in with his girlfriend, it is Cassie, who this time, finds herself under strain on all sides with both a dad with dementia (Peter Egan) and a boyfriend (Alastair Mackenzie) potentially on the move. Keen to retire after the traumatic climax to the previous case, Cassie is forced to work on this one final stressful case in order to qualify for her full police pension.
As perfectly realised and beautifully acted as before, Chris Lang’s Unforgotten remains the finest British crime drama on TV today.
As far as the world of comics goes, Stan Lee was probably the most important person to have ever lived. Born to a Romanian-Jewish family in New York in 1922, young Stanley Lieber became involved in the world of comics early. An office boy in the 1930s, by the end of a frustrating 1950s, Lee came close to quitting the world of comics forever until his Newcastle-born British wife suggested he create a new crop of comic superheroes to challenge the near monopoly then enjoyed by Superman and Batman creators, D.C. In a remarkably short space of time, Lee created Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, The X-Men and The Avengers essentially establishing Marvel as the incredibly profitable global media powerhouse that it remains to this day. Happy ever after? Well, no. Partly because, as Adrian Mackinder explains, the extent to which Lee can really claim complete credit for creating all these amazing characters remains hotly disputed. This is not a hagiography and while Lee was careful to cultivate a loveable avuncular image amongst Marvel’s armies of ‘True Believers,’ Mackinder, though clearly a big fan himself, does not shy away from exploring the less desirable elements of Lee’s character.
In short, Mackinder not only does a commendable job of detailing the highs, lows, creative explosions, fallings out and film cameos which made up Lee’s almost 96 years on Earth but also does a commendable job of explaining the cultural context in which they occurred. In addition to Lee’s life, we also learn a lot not only about the history of Marvel comics, but also get much on how vaudeville declined in the teeth of competition from radio and cinema in the 1920s and 1930s and much of interest about ALL comic adaptations on TV and film over the decades, not just the Marvel ones. It is easy to forget, despite the renaissance in comic book based films in the 21st century,, just how many flops there also were (Daredevil, Elektra, Ghost Rider, to name but a few). I must admit: I have sometimes written about the history of comics myself. But ultimately, I must put aside any feelings of professional jealousy and concede: Adrian Mackinder really has done an exceptional job here. Nuff said.
Book review: Stan Lee – How Marvel Changed The World, by Adrian Mackinder. Published by: Pen & Sword, White Owl.
Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Katy Wix’s book is not actually very funny.
This is not because Katy Wix herself isn’t funny: she definitely is. On TV series like Not Going Out, The Windsors, Ghosts and as a contestant on Taskmaster, she has consistently demonstrated herself to be incredibly talented, likeable (even when playing unlikeable characters such as the snooty Carole in Miranda or bossy estate agent Carole in Stath Lets Fllats) and amusing. In truth, she is probably one of the finest comedy actresses working in Britain today.
But this memoir – which links a number of key events in Wix’s life to various cakes – is not only not especially funny but is not even for the most part, really aspiring to be so. The book deals with serious issues: Wix’s own struggles with her weight, her deeply unpleasant grandfather, the death of a friend, a serious car accident and her mother’s struggle with cancer. The book’s cover comes emblazoned with a quote from Simon Amstell (another very talented figure) describing the book as “painful, raw and incredibly funny.” Painfully raw? Yes. But to describe this as “incredibly funny” honestly does Delicacy a disservice. It is possible to make a troubled memoir very funny indeed as demonstrated by Georgia Pritchett’s forthcoming, My Mess Is A Bit Of A Life. But this isn’t that book.
This is not to detract from the honesty of Wix’s writing or to diminish the genuine heartache she has clearly experienced. But if you want a funny book, look elsewhere.
Book review: Delicacy A Memoir About Cake and Death, by Katy Wix. Published by: Headline.
1951: Dennis the Menace first appears in The Beano, drawn by Scots cartoonist, Davey Law. There is no Gnasher yet and Dennis’s distinctive stripy black and red jumper do not appear for some weeks. He is not yet on the cover but has a half-page black and white story inside the comic. The character and strip have a more real-world feel than many Beano strips which makes it instantly popular. Biffo the Bear remains on the cover where he has been since he knocked The Beano’s original cover star, Big Eggo off in 1948. Eggo (an ostrich) had ruled the roost since The Beano started in 1938.
By a staggering coincidence, a new American comic strip also called ‘Dennis the Menace’ created by Hank Ketcham appears in US newspapers almost exactly simultaneously. The first Beano featuring Dennis was dated 17th March although in practice wold have been available five days earlier: the exact same day the US Dennis debuted! The American Dennis is blonde, has a dog and a neighbour called Mr Wilson. He too, is still going strong as of 2021. He is usually referred to as just ‘Dennis’ when he appears in the UK while the UK version is called, ‘Dennis and Gnasher’ in the US to avoid confusion. Just to be clear, this feature is only about the British Dennis the Menace, although both are now seventy.
1953: Dennis has now been promoted to a full page colour story on The Beano’s back cover. Dennis’s enemy Walter also makes his first appearance (Dennis’s friends, Curly and Pie-Face have already arrived).
In the same year, Minnie the Minx and Little Plum first appear in The Beano while Beryl the Peril appears in the new title, The Topper. Beryl and Minnie are clearly intended to be female versions of Dennis. Beryl and Dennis are both drawn by Davey Law for much of the 1950s. Leo Baxendale, the creator of Minnie and ‘Redskin’ Dennis, Little Plum (amongst many other strips, including The Bash Street Kids) credited Dennis with inspiring him to join The Beano.
1955: The first Dennis the Menace Book or annual appears. Of all the many characters to appear in The Beano over the years, only The Bash Street Kids have been granted the same honour.
1968: Abyssinian Wire-Haired Tripe Hound, Gnasher makes his first appearance as Dennis’s canine companion. The story becomes known as ‘Dennis the Menace and Gnasher’ and later just ‘Dennis and Gnasher’.
1970: Davey Law retires (he dies in 1971). David Sutherland takes over as Dennis’s artist.
1974: Dennis the Menace replaces Biffo the Bear as The Beano’s cover story. He remains there to this day after nearly 47 years, well over half the duration of The Beano’s 83-year run. Increasingly old-fashioned, Biffo ceases to appear regularly in The Beano at all after 1987.
1976: The Dennis the Menace Fan Club begins.
1977: Gnasher’s Tale, a spin-off story begins.
1979: Dennis’s pet pig, Rasher makes his debut appearance. He appears in his own story from 1984 until 1988 and intermittently afterwards.
1986: In a well-publicised storyline, Gnasher briefly goes missing and (though male) returns with a litter of puppies including Gnipper, a puppy with a single large razor-sharp tooth. Gnasher’s Tale is replaced by a new story, Gnasher and Gnipper.
1996: A Dennis the Menace cartoon appears on TV. Voices include Billy Connolly and Hugh Laurie.
1998: Birth of Dennis the Menace’s sister Bea.
2004: Dennis the Menaces surpasses the record previously set by Lord Snooty to become the longest running Beano character ever. Only Minnie the Minx and Roger the Dodger come close to rivalling his longevity.
2009: Another new TV series, Dennis and Gnasher begins. It continues until 2013.
2021: Dennis the Menace celebrates his 70th birthday.