Book review: Fight! – Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, by Harry Hill

The pandemic has turned many comedians into authors.

It’s perfectly understandable. With many of the usual avenues of expression closed off to them, the lockdowns have provided a golden opportunity for many comics with a story to tell to finally put their words on paper. For many, it was either that or start a podcast. Little wonder then that, the Christmas 2021 books market is overflowing with comedy biographies. Harry Hill’s new autobiography is a weightier tome than his previous literary works, Harry Hill’s Whopping Great Joke Book, Harry Hill’s Fun Book or Harry Hill’s Bumper Book of Bloopers. But Fight! is a great read and I’d actually rank it alongside Bob Mortimer’s …And Away! as one of the very best comedy-themed books of the year.

As Harry himself admits, however, he is not for everyone. Chris Tarrant and Keeley Hawes are amongst those famous names who Harry has encountered who have not taken to his unique sense of humour. I myself have often been amazed how even during the long reign of Harry Hill’s TV Burp as one of the most consistently funny shows on British TV of the 2000s, a surprising number of people, many of whom I would have otherwise said had a good sense of humour suddenly became insufferably snooty whenever Harry’s name was mentioned. If you are one of those people, chances are, neither this book or even this review will be for you. Kindly go elsewhere.

For the rest of us, this is a treat, often funny, particularly in its early stages and revealing. Harry, after all, has a story to tell.

Today, with his winged collar, NHS spectacles and distinctly eccentric appearance, Harry Hill’s comic persona although well-established is hard to define. He looks like a middle-aged Bash Street Kid. Back in the 1970s, he was Matthew Hall, a bright young teenager busily engaged in developing smoke bombs and other homemade explosives with his other bored, science-obsessed school friends in rural Kent. “My interest in science was largely a by-product of pyromania” he admits now but it led directly to a medical career, something he abandoned only in the early 1990s as his love for performing live comedy took over. As Harry himself might reflect, “what were the chances of that happening eh?”

His accounts of his medical career make fascinating reading. Although he does not seem to be one of those comedians with an obvious dark side, his experiences as a doctor (including an excruciating sequence in which he makes a hash of informing a young husband that his wife had died unexpectedly) along with the premature deaths of a number of his old friends have obviously given him an appreciation of the fact life his short.

He has also clearly retained a treasure trove of memories and physical relics of his comedy career. It is interesting to learn that he often collaborated with the likes of Alastair McGowan and Stewart Lee in the 1990s: not names one would obviously associate with him now. By the end of the decade, he was a familiar face on Channel 4. Between 2001 and 2012, he enjoyed his biggest ever success with over 160 episodes of ITV’s Saturday evening “sideways look at the week’s television,” TV Burp. The build-up to the show’s commercial breaks during which a staged fight between two often very surreal rivals, incidentally, explains the book’s title. Such showdowns included; “the Archbishop of Canterbury versus the Footballers’ Wives,” “a paw versus a claw” and “who is the best vegetarian: Heather Mills or Hitler?” During the last of these skirmishes, Harry can be clearly heard shouting, “come on, Hitler!”

In the end, the strain of trawling through hours of often terrible TV to find a few nuggets of comedy gold proved too much for Harry and the other writers and the show ended. Nothing else he has done has ever proven quite as successful. Harry proves unafraid to mention his lesser successes, which include Alien Fun Capsule (essentially a less popular version of TV Burp), Harry Hill’s Tea Time (an enjoyable but little seen Sky One show) or the fun but not especially commercial 2013 Harry Hill Movie featuring Julie Walters, Sheridan Smith and pop rock band, The Magic Numbers.

He also does not shy away from mentioning his few outright failures either: these include his short-lived X-Factor-themed musical, I Can’t Sing and disastrous stints presenting Capital Radio, an attempt to revive Matthew Kelly’s Stars In Their Eyes or the filming of a never-aired pilot of an unpromising Beadle’s About style prank show.. That said, his failure to mention anything about the character Professor Branestawm or his sixteen series narrating home video clips show, You’ve Been Framed! (as far as I noticed anyway) is more surprising, however, particularly as neither of these were obvious failures. He’s has a busy life: perhaps he just forgot to mention them?

Ultimately, it is a book and a career to be proud of. Now 57, what does the future hold for the onetime Doctor Matthew Hall?

Well, there’s only one way to find out…

Book review: Fight! – Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, by Harry Hill. Published by: Hodder Studio. Available: now.

Book review: Jimmy Carr – Before & Laughter

The cover of Jimmy Carr’s book (or at least, the cover on the edition I have) shows Jimmy Carr symbolically removing a depressed version of his own face, revealing the more familiar, grinning version of the comedian underneath. The picture illustrates a central theme of the book: how twenty-two years ago, Jimmy transformed himself by abandoning his well-paid but unsatisfactory marketing job at Shell, ultimately becoming the very successful comedian and TV personality we all know today. Carr became, he argues, a much happier person as a result. Here, he argues, you can do the same, not necessarily by becoming a stand-up comedian (a career move which obviously wouldn’t suit everyone) but by identifying what you really want from life and going for it.

In many ways, the cover image would would work just as well if the two faces were reversed. For while the book is by no means deadly serious (on the contrary, there are lots of jokes throughout) this is Jimmy Carr, the host of 8 Out of 10 Cats with a silly laugh, revealing the more serious version of himself. The funny-man is revealing the more serious man behind the mask, not the other way round.

It should be a good read. Whether you personally like him or not, Jimmy Carr is a very clever and successful man with an interesting story to tell. He is perhaps not quite as funny on the page as he is as a performer, but he is not far off it.

Some of the publicity for this book describes it as Carr’s “first autobiography”. It isn’t. And this is the problem. When Carr does open up about his personal life and about his occasional struggles with mental health: his grief over the death of his mother, his hatred for his estranged father, the details of how he established his comedy career, his struggles with dyslexia, his panic attacks on stage, the book is very interesting. But this only goes so far. We learn very little about his childhood or about why he fell out with his father. There is nothing about his recent hair transplant. The book actually takes the form of a self-help book. A self-help book filled with quotations from other people, jokes, swearing and anecdotes from Carr’s own life.

Being a self-help book is not in itself a problem. Jimmy Carr has had a successful life and he wants to help others to be successful too. This is perfectly commendable.

The problem is that while some of his advice is useful much of it sounds like meaningless guff regurgitated from a thousand therapy sessions. He often spends a lot of time saying a lot which amounts to very little. Carr has done well in life and has worked hard for it. Fair enough. But he is almost evangelical in his conviction that his own formula for success can be easily transposed to everyone else.

“No one can beat you at being you…Look at society and ask ‘what am I bringing to the party?…Makes your own choices, just don’t not think about it…You can have anything, but you can’t have everything…When you win, you win, but you lose you learn.” It is often difficult to square banal platitudes such as this with the more cynical persona Jimmy Carr projects on stage and on TV.

In truth, of course, it is just that: a persona. As with other darker comics such as Frankie Boyle, Carr jokes about disability, incest and rape. But this is not him. It is humour and designed to shock.

Even so, I suspect he has a few ethical blind spots. He includes ‘climate change’ on a list of things which we should not worry about as we have no control over them. The arguments in defence of some of his more controversial jokes do not really stand up to scrutiny. He knows better than to attempt to defend his involvement in a tax avoidance scheme before 2012. The scandal came close to destroying his career and he has now paid back all the money he owed. But he has never really explained why he thought it was okay in the first place.

Despite all this, I like Jimmy Carr. I have seen him live and have interviewed him once. Over the last twenty years, he has been one of our best and most consistent comedians. A great biography will probably be published about him one day. But I suspect it won’t be written by him.

Book review: Jimmy Carr – Before & Laughter. A Life-Changing Book. Published by: Quercus Publishing.

The Seven Ages of Doctor Who

Written by: Chris Hallam. Originally published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2017…

Fifty-three years. Thirty-five series. 827 episodes. Twelve Doctors. Doctor Who is a phenomenon without equal in TV or science fiction. Yet with series 10 and a new Doctor the way following news of the planned departure of Peter Capaldi at Christmas, is it still possible to put the show into some sort of perspective or is it doomed like the TARDIS to forever escape our comprehension? Join Chris Hallam as he explores… 

The 7 Ages of Doctor Who…

Doctor Who is like nothing else on Earth.

In the UK, it remains the eighth longest series of all time rubbing shoulders with the likes of Coronation Street, The Sky At Night and Blue Peter. It is one of only a dozen or so programmes still showing to be old enough to have once been in black and white.

But in the realm of science fiction it is truly a world beater. Nothing else comes close to it in terms of longevity. Not Stargate, not Red Dwarf, not even Star Trek. Even if you collect all the different Star Trek series together and add them up (already an unfair comparison really) then Doctor Who still wins, in terms of both episodes and the span of time it’s been on. So if you think watching The OA on Netflix was a bit of a long haul recently, this should hopefully put things into perspective. It’s as if The OA was still on in 2069.

Science fiction isn’t really supposed to be like this, of course. Although in theory it should be more timeless than other genres, somehow it rarely seems to work out that way. It’s hard to imagine Blake’s 7 lasting into the 21st century, for example or Lost In Space even lasting into the Eighties. Most science fiction reflects its own times very strongly. Doctor Who owes its survival to a formula which ensures it can survive an ever-changing cast, its success in reviving itself after a sixteen-year hiatus and its evolution over the decades.

The history of the series so far can be divided into seven distinct phases…

THE FIRST AGE: GENESIS: 1963-1970

Star Trek had Gene Roddenberry. Star Wars had George Lucas. Harry Potter, JK Rowling. But there is no equivalent figure for the creation of Doctor Who.

The series emerged partly from a desire to fill the gap in BBC schedules on Saturday evenings, bridging the void between the end of Grandstand and the start of the then popular Juke Box Jury. But there was much more to it than that. it also formed the culmination of a collective effort to provide an ambitious new science fiction programme for the channel, following in the footsteps of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series in the 1950s and other experimental shows like A For Andromeda (1961). The new series would be more ambitious and longer running than either.

A group effort it may have been but certain individuals certainly deserve credit for Doctor Who notably the Head of TV Drama, Sydney Newman described by author James Chapman as “the most important single figure in the history of the history of the golden age of television in Britain”. Another was producer, Verity Lambert who was keen to ensure that Doctor Who would be more than just a kids’ show from the start. It was Lambert who chose William Hartnell, the star of the first Carry On film Carry On Sergeant and a familiar figure from TV sitcom The Army Game as the Doctor. The first episode was broadcast, coincidentally, on the day after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

To a modern viewer, only the title, the basic theme tune, the TARDIS and the presence of a character named “the Doctor” would link the first episode to the current series in any way.

Four basic factors partly explain why Doctor Who has endured for so long. For one thing, the original creators were ingenious enough to make the basic premise sufficiently vague to allow future writers plenty of leigh-way to develop it further. The Doctor himself, for example was initially described as:

“A frail old man lost in space and time. They give him the name because they don’t know who he is…he is searching for something as well as fleeing from something. He has a ‘machine’ which enables them to travel through time, through space and through matter.”

A second key factor was the creation of the Daleks. Their immense popularity from their first appearance in 1964 ensured the series a place in the national psyche. The Doctor’s battles with the Daleks also enabled his character and the series to develop in unforeseen ways.

Another essential element was the introduction of the Doctor’s ever-changing companions – several, at first, but generally only one at a time from the 1970s onwards – which kept the format fresh.

But crucially it was the Doctor’s ability to occasionally renew himself (the term “regeneration” was not used initially) which enabled the series to survive Hartnell’s decision to retire on health grounds in 1966. “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin,” Hartnell’s Doctor uttered shortly before collapsing onto the floor of the TARDIS and beginning a dramatic transformation. Sadly, as with many other episodes from the period, the actual episode has been wiped by the BBC. Thankfully, this crucial sequence has survived.

The younger Patrick Troughton brought humour to the role and was clearly a very different figure from his predecessor. Indeed, Newman characterised The Second Doctor as a “cosmic hobo”. The Troughton era would be characterised by a more diverse range of monsters (including the Cybermen, Yeti and Warriors). But it was the idea of regeneration – initially conceived as a stop gap measure to deal with a series crisis – which ensured that the show could still survive when an overworked Troughton himself gave way to Jon Pertwee in 1970.

THE SECOND AGE: THE GOLDEN ERA 1970-1980

The 1970s was ultimately to prove to be the heyday of Doctor Who. The year 1970 itself indeed saw many crucial changes.

First, there was the new Doctor himself. Although traditionally associated with comedic roles up until that point (he had starred in radio’s The Navy Lark and came very close to being cast as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army), Jon Pertwee took a decision early on to play the Doctor straight, distinguishing himself from Patrick Troughton’s more comedic approach immediately.

There were other changes. Pertwee was to be the first Doctor to have only one companion at a time: Katy Manning followed by Elisabeth Sladen. The series would also be broadcast in colour for the first time.

Finally, and crucially, following the Second Doctor’s trial by the Time Lords, Pertwee’s Doctor spent much of his entire tenure banished to exile on 20th century Earth as punishment for his violation of non-intervention laws. This is often cynically seen as a budgetary measure by the BBC. In fact, budgets rose for the series under Pertwee. Despite concerns that the Earth-bound setting might make the series resemble a 1970s version of Quatermass, the Pertwee Era (1970-74) is generally remembered with affection by fans.

Then came Tom Baker. The most eccentric of the Doctors, Baker’s relative youth and bohemian eternal student appearance raised eyebrows at first. In time, he would become the most enduring, the most popular and the most internationally recognised Doctor Who. His seven-year tenure (1974-81) witnessed a classic era for the series.

It is unusual for a series in its sixteenth year to be at its peak, indeed statistically after 16 years, most TV programmes are not only finished but long forgotten. But despite a growing Mary Whitehouse-led campaign concerning levels of violence within the series, such was the case with Doctor Who in 1979.  Ratings were generally as high as nine to eleven million, peaking at 16.1 million for the final episode of City of Death in 1979. Admittedly, this was during a strike which had shut down production at ITV but even so, this remains an all-time high for the series. Critically, the show was doing well too, partly due to the contribution of talented young writers like Douglas Adams. Doctor Who was at a high.

Clearly, the only way was down.

THE THIRD AGE: FALLING SLOWLY 1980-1984

At just thirty, Peter Davison was already a likeable and familiar face to audiences having appeared in All Creatures Great and Small amongst other things and cameoing as the Dish of the Day in the 1982 TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy during his time as the Doctor. He nevertheless had a tough act to follow. The scripts reflect this insecurity; for example, on spying his new reflection the Doctor muses: “well, I suppose I’ll get used to in time.”

It is sad then, that the Davison era is associated with the beginning of a steep ratings decline which ultimately ended in the shows cancellation in 1989. This probably wasn’t Davison’s fault. Viewing figures had actually began to fall during Tom Baker’s last year, perhaps in response to radical changes introduced by flamboyant new producer John Nathan-Turner after 1980. These included a new heavily synthesized version of the familiar theme tune, new stylised costumes for the Doctors and updated filming techniques.

Fans generally welcomed the changes and Nathan-Turner was arguably only combatting an inevitable post-Star Wars decline for the series anyway; both budgets and expectations had suddenly risen dramatically. But whatever the truth: ratings did fall. Davison’s first series averaged only 5.8 million viewers with one episode dropping to 3.7 million: an all-time low for any Doctor Who episode up until that point.

Although in general Davison (now father-in-law to the Tenth Doctor David Tennant) is remembered fondly.

THE FOURTH AGE: DECLINE AND FALL 1984-1989

Who killed Doctor Who?

On the face of it, Michael (now Lord) Grade, the former head of BBC programming has often been happy to play the role of the biggest bogeyman in this story.

“The show was ghastly. It was pathetic,” he has said. “It just got more and more violent…it was just horrible to watch. It lost its way… I cancelled it. It was absolutely the right decision at the time.”

Grade indeed is right to take responsibility for the ultimate decision to pull the plug. But even ignoring his animus, there were other factors too.  Ratings were now typically as low as four or five million and the show was becoming overly self-referential, appealing to its hardcore of fans but alienating everyone else. Attempts to attract publicity through unusual casting decisions such as Richard Briers and Alexei Sayle did not always help.

History has not been kind to the Sixth Doctor and in truth Colin Baker was dealt a rotten hand during his stint between 1984 and 1986 with most of this time spent in a period of enforced 18-month hiatus imposed by Grade. Baker’s spell as the Doctor ended acrimoniously, with the effect that the now traditional regeneration sequence had to be filmed without him.

Always vulnerable to the charge of being “just a children’s programme,” some scepticism met news of the appointment of Sylvester McCoy, an actor then primarily known for roles on kids’ TV (such as the Horrible Histories forerunner Eureka!) to succeed Colin Baker. In truth, McCoy soon warmed to the role helped (after a brief unhappy pairing with scream queen Bonnie Langford) by an especially able companion Ace (real name Dorothy) played by Sophie Aldred who had “been written with a greater sensitivity and subtlety than had usually been afforded by the role of companion” according to James Chapman in his book Inside The Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who. As Aldred’s confidence grew, Chapman argues, her initially tomboyish character was allowed to grow and develop in ways previously unseen in a Doctor’s companion.

But it was not enough. Chapman also argues that by the end, the BBC had lost interest in the show to the extent that they deliberately scheduled in slots where it was “doomed to fail” making its cancellation in 1989 inevitable.

Ultimately, the real question should not be who killed Doctor Who but why it endured for an impressive 26 years in the first place.

And even after that, it never really went away.

THE FIFTH AGE: LIMBO (1989-2005)

Years passed. Speculation about whether the series might yet return continued throughout the Nineties. The series’ cult following never went away and was reflected in the continuing fanzines and by sales of Doctor Who novels and magazines. But it was 1996 before a new Doctor Who came along and when it did it came in the form of what turned out to be a one-off TV movie.

By many usual criteria, the movie entitled simply “Doctor Who” was a success. Around nine million UK viewers watched it, certainly enough to suggest there was an audience for the new Doctor. Much of the critical feedback was positive. Certainly, most seemed happy with the choice of the new Doctor: Paul McGann best known for his role in the cult comedy Withnail and I (1987) and the BBC First World War drama The Monocled Mutineer (1986).  The result of an audition process which had apparently included everyone from Mark McGann (Paul’s brother, one of an acting dynasty), Tony Slattery, Michael Crawford and John Sessions, McGann’s Doctor was styled as “a Romantic hero in the mould of Percy Bysshe Shelley” by writer James Chapman and was described as “the best” and “the sexiest Doctor ever” by others.

Probably the main failing of the TV movie, however, was with US audiences. Despite a US setting and the casting of American actors like Eric (brother of Julia) Roberts, the TV movie underperformed in the US and this ultimately ensured it would not continue as a series. Some have attributed this to poor scheduling choices – the film was put up against the final episode of long-running US sitcom, Roseanne. But in fact, it was more likely to have been let down by a simple fact; Doctor Who had never been on network TV in the US and so most American viewers were unfamiliar with the character, series and the concept.

It would take another later version of the show to slowly establish a foothold amongst US audiences. And it would need to establish itself in the UK first.

THE SIXTH AGE: THE RETURN (2005-2010).

Apparently, it isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time. Well, maybe that’s true but the 21st century revival of Doctor Who certainly came damned close. By delivering a new Doctor Who imbued the all the production values the show deserved, the comeback pleased core fans, critics and newcomers alike.

Partly this was down to excellent casting. Although he only chose to play the Doctor for one series, Christopher Eccleston was one of the best known actors to have ever played the Doctor with a career encompassing memorable roles in TV dramas like Our Friends In The North and Russell T. Davies’s Second Coming to films like Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave to Gone in Sixty Seconds. He was ably assisted by ex-pop star Billie Piper in the role Rose Tyler, one of the most popular companions ever.

Although much less well known on his appointment, David Tennant, star of Russell T. Davies’s Casanova, soon blossomed in the role of the Doctor, his performance developing from a rather uneven one in his early days in the TARDIS. By the time he left the series in 2010, he was rivalling Tom Baker for the position of most popular Doctor Who ever.

For to visit the Doctor Who of a decade ago is to see the show at an all-time high. Ratings for the 2007 Christmas special for example were almost higher than they had ever been, over 13 million. The show had furthermore spawned two successful spin-offs the more grown-up Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures. Things had never been better.

THE SEVENTH AGE: INTO THE FUTURE (2010-?)

The last decade as seen a slight decline in the series’ fortunes. Since the departure of Russell T. Davies as show runner in 2010, ratings have fallen. Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures have ended but have been replaced by a new spin-off series Class. Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi have both been well-received as the Doctor but there has been a growing sense that Doctor Who has gradually less compulsive viewing in the last few years.

Veteran actor Peter Capaldi has indicated that the forthcoming Series 10 of Doctor Who will be his last. But what does Series 10 have to offer? And what does Capaldi’s departure potentially mean for the show?

Ultimately, the future of Doctor Who is as yet unwritten. We do not even know much about Series 10. Yes, a few old favourites will return: Matt Lucas will reprise his recent role as Nardole. After a long build-up Pearl Mackie will finally take up her role as companion Bill to Capaldi’s Doctor. The likes of David Suchet and Ralf Little are also expected to appear.

Who then will be the new Doctor? Speculation has already been rampant although ultimately the decision as to replace Steven Moffat who his leaving his position as show runner after this series with Chris Chibnall might be as crucial.

For ultimately it is how Doctor Who responds to such changes, how successfully it renews and refreshes itself which will determine Doctor Who’s future. It is these qualities which have ensured its survival in the past half century and will maintain it in the future either as a cult or a show with a committed mass audience.

DOCTOR AT LARGE: BIG SCREEN TIMELORDS

One thing that might have made the idea of William Hartnell turning into Patrick Troughton a bit easier to swallow was the fact that many viewers had already seen the Doctor by someone other than Hartnell already. Veteran actor and future Rogue One star Peter Cushing had played the Doctor twice in the films Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966) both directed by Gordon Flemyng (father of the actor Jason Flemyng). Unsurprisingly, neither of these films is quite the same as the series. Despite his horror background, Cushing is a more good-natured Doctor than Hartnell in films which seem very specifically aimed at children. Roy Castle and future 21st century series star Bernard CribbIns provide comic relief respectively while the titles for both films suggest an attempt to capitalise on the early Daleks craze. Neither are bad films but after the second (probably superior) film did less box office than the first, no more films were made. Today, the two present an interesting curiosity as well as the earliest example of Doctor Who in colour.

ALL CHANGE PLEASE!: THE REGENERATION GAME

What brought on the Doctors’ big change each time?

  1. FIRST DOCTOR (The Tenth Planet, 1966): Old and worn out, Hartnell’s Doc collapses on the floor of the TARDIS. A few minutes later, Patrick Troughton gets up again. Clever eh?
  2. SECOND DOCTOR (The War Games, 1970): As punishment for his interventionist ways, the Time Lords force a “change of appearance” on Troughton’s Doctor as well as exile to Earth.
  3. THIRD DOCTOR: (Planet of the Spiders, 1974). Poisoned by radiation, this saw the term “regeneration” used for the first time. In Doctor Who, that is.
  4. FOURTH DOCTOR (Logopolis, 1981):  Falls from a radio telescope. We’ve all done it.
  5. FIFTH DOCTOR (The Caves of Androzani, 1984): Succumbs to poisoning while staring at Nicola Bryant’s cleavage. It’s what he would have wanted…
  6. SIXTH DOCTOR (Time and the Rani, 1987) Colin Baker’s Doctor regenerates into Sylvester McCoy following a crash landing for the TARDIS. An irked Baker refused to participate, so McCoy was filmed throughout the process using clever special effects and a blond curly wig.
  7. SEVENTH DOCTOR (The 1996 TV film): In a fridge in a morgue after being shot in LA.
  8. EIGHTH DOCTOR (The Night of the Doctor, 2013): Paul McGann’s Doctor dies in a spaceship crash regenerating into the War Doctor (the late John Hurt) after drinking a special potion in this mini-episode. The War Doctor then himself regenerates from old age in the 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor (also 2013). Do keep up please!
  9. NINTH DOCTOR (The Parting of the Ways, 2005): Christopher Eccleston perishes after absorbing the time vortex.
  10. TENTH DOCTOR (THE END OF TIME, 2010): Absorbs a vast amount of radiation thus saving Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins). Tennant wasn’t even born when Cribbins appeared in the Sixties Who movie.
  11. ELEVENTH DOCTOR (The Time of the Doctor, 2013): Receives a new lease of life after receiving a regeneration cycle from the Time Lords before regenerating into Peter Capaldi.

CHRIS HALLAM

Book review: 1922, Scenes From A Turbulent Year, by Nick Rennison

Although not obviously unusually significant, 1922 was a reasonably eventful year in global history. In Italy, a rally organised by Benito Mussolini got out of hand, resulting in a 'March on Rome' and, almost accidentally, the establishment of the world's first Fascist state. In Britain, the BBC (then called 'the British Broadcasting Company') began broadcasting for the first time. T.S Eliot's landmark poem, The Wasteland was published. Music hall legend, Marie Lloyd died. Harold R. Harris became the first man ever to successfully bail himself out of a plane by using a parachute.

An eventful year indeed and all of these events occurred just in one month of 1922 (October). Many more occurred throughout the rest of the year.
On a month by month basis, Nick Rennison's readable popular history book explores a number of the year's events. We learn about feats of speed and aviation, early Hollywood scandals, sporting successes, notorious trials and about Howard Carter's  discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. We learn about the rise of the Flapper (1920s slang for any thoroughly modern fun-loving young woman) and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Assassins strike. American lynch mobs converge. In newly Soviet Russia, the ailing Lenin watches as Trotsky and Stalin battle to succeed him. The world recovers from a global pandemic.
A fascinating snapshot of the vanished world of a century ago.

Book review: 1922, Scenes From A Turbulent Year, by Nick Rennison. Published by: Oldcastle Books. Available: now.

Book review: The Coppolas, by Ian Nathan

First there was the father, Francis Ford Coppola.

Having once been told (wrongly) that he would never walk again during a childhood bout of polio, as an adult he directed The Godfather, the ultimate family saga and one of the greatest films ever made. Following this up with two more 1970s classics, The Conversation and at time when movie sequels were still unusual, The Godfather Part II. His all-consuming ambition almost overwhelmed him while filming Apocalypse Now, however. Although ultimately a success, the production became almost as sprawling and chaotic as the Vietnam War itself, very nearly destroying both his marriage and his career in the process. Quieter and smaller films have followed since. The Outsiders. Rumblefish. The Rainmaker.

Then, there was the daughter, Sofia. Overcoming the widespread criticism which surrounded her acting performance (stepping in for Winona Ryder) in her father’s underwhelming Godfather Part III in 1990, Sofia blew discerning audiences away at the end of the decade with her impressive directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. Soon after that she really made her mark with Lost in Translation, a film which remains one of the most acclaimed American films of the 21st century so far and made a star of the then still teenaged Scarlett Johansson. Since then, her record has been more mixed: Marie Antoinette completely divided audiences, The Bling Ring generally underwhelmed them, The Beguiled impressed the arthouse crowd while never attracting big audiences.

This is mainly their story but it is also the tale of the other Coppolas. Talia Shire, Francis’s sister who played Connie in The Godfather films and Adrian, the love of boxer Rocky Balboa’s life, in the Rocky films. She is the mother of director and actor, Robert Schwartzman as well as the actor and musician, Jason Schwartzman, best known for his roles in Wes Anderson films notably Rushmore as well as in his cousin Sofia’s Marie Antoinette as well as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and many other films and TV shows. Then there is rising star, Gia Coppola, the promising young director of Palo Alto. Her father, Gian-Carlo (the son of Francis and sister of Sofia) was tragically killed in a speedboat accident while Gia was still in the womb in 1987.

Not to forget, Nicolas Coppola, the son of Francis’s late brother, August, now known as the Oscar-winning actor, Nicolas Cage. Initially starting out in his uncle’s 1980s films Rumblefish and Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage (who took his adopted surname from the comic character, Luke Cage) is sometimes erratic (he has been married five times forging a familial link between the Coppolas, the Presleys and the Arquette acting dynasty) but has enjoyed enormous success working alongside the Coens, David Lynch and John Woo.

This is a fascinating account of a family whose own saga has become inextricably linked to the unfolding story of American cinema.

Book review: The Coppolas, by Ian Nathan. Published by: Palazzo Editions.

Book review: Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay, by William Gibson

Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay by William Gibson: by Pat Cadigan; William Gibson. Published by: Titan Books.

There is quite a lot of backstory here. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

To start with: this isn’t a screenplay. It is a novel. It is a novel written by Pat Cadigan based on a screenplay which was written but not used for the 1992 film, Alien 3. The original screenplay was written by the distinguished science fiction author, William Gibson who is best known for his Hugo award-winning 1984 cyberpunk novel,, Neuromancer. But his script for Aliens 3 bore no resemblance to one used for the finished film.

On this evidence, it seems a shame Gibson’s version was never put into action. For the actual Aliens 3 (despite being directed by a young David Fincher who later oversaw the two classics, Seven and Fight Club) was a disappointing failure. This is a shame because the first two Alien films, Ridley Scott’s chilling Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s action-packed Aliens (1986) remain two of the finest science fiction films ever made. But no good Alien films have been made in the years since. Perhaps you’ve only ever seen the first two movies? If so, take my advice and stop there.

Incidentally, this volume would sorely benefit from the inclusion of some sort of introduction explaining what exactly this is.

Unlike the aliens themselves, Alien 3 had a long gestation period. The Gibson screenplay was written early on, soon after Aliens (1986) had been released and proven to be a success. William Gibson’s story has a few strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, it has a much better start than the actual Alien 3. This opened badly with the revelation that two of the survivors of the second film,, Newt and Corporal Hicks had been killed in an accident, a depressing and unsatisfactory outcome for viewers who had seen them live through and survive so much during James Cameron’s film. In this version, Hicks (portrayed by Michael Biehn in Aliens) and the android, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) both play a major role in the action. This is very welcome. More controversially, the franchise’s traditional heroine, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is very much pushed to the side lines here. Another weaker aspect, is the introduction of a futuristic version of the USSR, something which would already have seemed dated by the time the finished film came out in 1992, the USSR having collapsed the year before. It certainly looks dated now.

But overall, this remains an enjoyable mixture of science fiction and horror: Pat Cadigan, who wrote this prose version, is an accomplished and talented Hugo-award winning author herself. It would be easy to mock: “In space, no one can hear you yawn…”  But, in truth, this a good novel in its own right and an intriguing footnote on the history of film, shedding light on a great cinematic What If…? which might so easily have been.

Book review: A Class Act, by Rob Beckett

Book review: A Class Act, Life as a Working-Class Man in a Middle-Class World, by Rob Beckett. Published by: Harper Collins. Available: now.

Now in his mid-thirties, Rob Beckett is a comedy success story, a popular stand-up, podcaster and a familiar TV face from shows like Mock The Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats and Taskmaster. He is also something of a rarity on the British comedy circuit in that he hails from a genuinely working-class background. This is his story, not a straightforward autobiography but a look at how his life and career have been affected by his past.

Judging by his own (and, indeed, probably many people’s) criteria, Beckett passes what he himself calls, ‘the Working-Class Test’ (perhaps this should be renamed, ‘The Beckett List?) with flying colours. He grew up in south-east London. His father worked as a driver: first driving vans, then petrol tankers, then a London taxi cab, His mum is known as ‘Big Suze’. He spent his 16th birthday at Crayford dog-racing track. He didn’t eat an avocado until he was 31. On the other hand, there is a darker side to all this. At his first ever Parents’ Evening at school, his parents were told straight that “he’s never going to be a high achiever or a high flier.”

Despite this, these experiences have left him not so much angry as conflicted. The book’s cover which shows him smartly dressed and cheerfully enjoying an expensive drink while simultaneously clearly about to tuck into a plate of bangers and mash while seated in a greasy spoon café, comically reflect his mixed feelings. His background has clearly caused him no small measure of awkwardness in the past. After an early comedy success winning a trip to Adelaide after securing the Best Newcomer award at Edinburgh ten years ago, Beckett found himself stuck there with no money left to enjoy the city at all. Later, after being invited to a swanky party hosted by Jimmy Carr he found himself mocked by other guests for arriving with a few cans of beers in a plastic bag. Although he gets on well with his warm and supportive family, he admits to having been occasionally been embarrassed by their behaviour. It’s true, one or two of his issues can be attributed to other things: he recognises he was self-conscious about his weight for many years. A few elements of his parents’ behaviour sound like they might be more to do with general eccentricity or old age than anything else. But he is right to recognise that most of these problems have been down to class.

Today, Rob Beckett recognises he is definitely middle-class himself. His wife is middle-class: for one thing, she had never eaten fried chicken before meeting him. He also recognises his daughters will grow up to be much posher than he is. Occasionally his insecurities return. Most dramatically, it took a near nervous breakdown shortly before lockdown to make him realise his continued success did not depend on him taking literally every job he was offered. Even as a successful comedian who had been commissioned to write this book, he admits it took him a while to realise he wasn’t being needlessly financially reckless to even consider buying himself a new laptop rather than awkwardly sharing the computer his wife was using to home school the children during lockdown.

He frequently seems amazed he is writing a book at all. And no wonder. His father didn’t even read a book until he was 43. The book in question was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, in fact, written by Sue Townsend, a woman from a far poorer background than the Becketts.

Like her, Rob Beckett has come a very long way from where he started out from. But then, perhaps not so far, at the same time.

Book review: History, by Miles Jupp

The year is 1998 and Clive Hapgood is an overworked History teacher in a small public school in this debut novel from the talented comedian and actor, Miles Jupp.

Clive is 38, but looks older. His hair greying and a bald patch is developing after years of struggling to juggle the demands of a headmaster who takes advantage of him every chance he gets and a busy, stressful home life dominated by his wife and two young daughters.

Jupp is a good writer and creates a vivid portrait of both the minutiae of Clive’s desperately overburdened existence at Frampton School and the horrors of a family holiday in Normandy.

Already a proven talent in other fields, Jupp proves his authorial credentials in a novel which contains some similarities to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.

Book review: Watching Neighbours Twice A Day, by Josh Widdicombe

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.”

Published by: Blink.

Book review: And Away… Bob Mortimer: The Autobiography

In 2015, Bob Mortimer very nearly died.

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.

Published by Gallery UK. Available: now.

2000AD timeline 14: 1990

1990 (Progs: 660 – 711)

The 1990s begin! It will prove to be a tough decade for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic and British comics generally…

January: (Prog 660): The identity of The Dead Man is revealed!

(Prog 662): Dredd strip, Tale of the Dead Man begins (John Wagner/Will Simpson).

(Prog 663): The light-hearted Bix Barton arrives (Pete Milligan/Jim McCarthy).

February: (Prog 665) Chopper – Song of the Surfer ends memorably.

(Prog 667): 13th birthday prog.

March (Prog 669): Five-part Countdown to Necropolis begins (Wagner/Ezquerra).

(Prog 671) New Harlem Heroes arrive (Michael Fleisher/Steve Dillon and Kevin Walker).

Armoured Gideon also debuts (John Tomlinson/Simon Jacob).

April (Prog 673): Universal Soldier begins (Alan McKenzie/Simon Coleby).

(Prog 674): A new Dredd mega-epic, Necropolis (Wagner/Ezquerra). As Dredd takes the Long Walk, Mega City One goes to Hell…

May: (Prog 679): Indigo Prime returns (John Smith/Chris Weston)

June (Prog 682): Strontium Dog returns for the last stage of The Final Solution now illustrated in full colour by Colin MacNeil (replacing Simon Harrison).

(Prog 688): Dredd returns. He has been physically absent from the comic for twenty progs (the longest period ever) even though the Judge Dredd strip (now embroiled in the Necropolis saga) has continued.

July (Prog 687): The shocking climax to Strontium Dog: The Final Solution.

Rogue Trooper (Friday) also finishes its current run (Gibbons/Simpson).

(Prog 688): Slaine the Horned God Book Three begins (Pat Mills/Simon Bisley). It ends in Prog 698 in September.

October (Prog 699(: Dredd mega-epic Necropolis ends.

Prog 700! Price rises to 45p. Paper quality of each issue improves. New stories: Time Flies (Garth Ennis/Philip Bond), Nemesis and Deadlock (Pat Mills/Carl Critchlow), Hewligan’s Haircut (Pete Milligan/Jamie Hewlett) and Anderson: Shamballa (Alan Grant/Arthur Ranson).

December (Prog 707): Hewligan’s Haircut ends. P.J Maybe returns to Judge Dredd.

Annuals: The 14th 2000AD annual and 11th Judge Dredd annual are published. Dredd annual features the story, Top Dog (Wagner/MacNeil) in which Dredd first encounters Strontium Dog, Johnny Alpha. Rogue Trooper appears in his one and only annual. Aside from Judge Dredd and Dan Dare, he is the only 2000AD character to ever get his own annual.

These are the last hardback 2000AD annuals to ever appear. The 2000AD and Dredd annuals revert to a softcover ‘Yearbook’ format for the four years dated 1992 to 1995. After that, they disappear completely.

Elsewhere:

Whizzer and Chips (est: 1969) merges into Buster. The Beezer and Topper join forces. The Beano’s Dennis the Menace and Viz’s Billy the Fish both get their own first ever cartoon TV series.

February: Quantum Leap debuts on BBC Two.

July: A big cinema month in the UK: Back to the Future Part III and Total Recall are big hits. Gremlins 2: The New Batch and Dick Tracy less so.

Revolver, a mature alternative monthly comic first appears. Highlights include Dare, a dark adult spin on the Dan Dare legend by Grant Morrison and Rian Hughes and Rogan Gosh by Peter Milligan and Brendan McCarthy. Revolver folds in January 1991 with some of its stories finishing off in Crisis.

September: Star Trek: The Next Generation arrives on BBC Two. In the US, (where the show has been on since 1987), the acclaimed Best of Both Worlds episodes in which Picard is captured by the Borg air.

October: Supernatural blockbuster, Ghost opens in the UK.

Judge Dredd The Megazine is launched. It is by far the most successful 2000AD spin-off ever and continues to this day. Early highlights include all-time classic, America (Wagner/MacNeil), the darkly humorous origins story, Young Death (Wagner/Peter Doherty) and Al’s Baby (Wagner/Ezquerra).

Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines and websites including The Companion, Yours Retro, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle, Metalzoic and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In the past, he wrote for Metro.co.uk, Radio Times, DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He also provided all the written content for the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars as well as for sections of the 2014 South Park annual and all the 2015 Transformers annual.

The world of H.G. Wells and the films he inspired

BY CHRIS HALLAM

FIRST PUBLISHED IN GEEKY MONKEY MAGAZINE IN 2016

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…

by George Charles Beresford, black and white glossy print, 1920

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.

Pssst!…The Secret’s Out…

Welcome to Exeter: a city of murderous mayors, witch trials, civil war sieges, uprisings and World War II bombing raids…

At least, it was once…

Today Exeter is a modern, thriving and pleasant city, known for its cathedral, university, busy array of shops, cafés and restaurants and historic quayside. However, beyond its sometimes quirky, narrow streets hide many lesser-known aspects of its history, those forgotten fragments of the city’s past that have thus far mostly eluded twenty-first-century attention.

How many people today, for example, know of the devastating Victorian theatre fire, the mass executions or of the multiple sieges that the city has endured during centuries of warfare? In Secret Exeter, local authors Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam attempt to shed light on the neglected corners of Exeter’s past.

From the introduction of Secret Exeter:

“Exeter is a fine place to live. Like Goldilocks’ third bowl of porridge, it is neither too hot or too cold, but just right, (although it is admittedly sometimes too wet). It is the perfect size: it is not too big and not too small. Exeter is just big enough to be practical but not so gigantic as to be overwhelming. It is neither Brobdingnag or Lilliput. Assuming you are reasonably fit, it is easy to walk into the countryside from virtually anywhere in the city…

“But this is not a tourist brochure. The aim of Secret Exeter is to shed light on the hitherto less renowned aspects of Exeter history. This is both easier and harder than it sounds. On the one hand, Exeter’s history is very apparent. It’s hard to walk very far at all without seeing some reminder of it: a cannon on the Quayside, a statue of a soldier on a horse, a section of the city wall. On the other hand, these are all arguably so well-known and obvious as to not really qualify as ‘secret’: surely everyone knows about them? But while many people pass them by, few know their real history in detail.

“Another factor is the surprisingly large number of obscure and sometimes incredible facts in the city’s history. Ultimately, we’ve decided not to try and second guess what people know, as it is impossible for us to know what you, the reader, is aware of. One person’s revelation is another’s hoary cliché. We hope everyone will find something in here that they didn’t know before, whether it’s murderous mayors or evidence of bomb damage that residents of the city may have walked past hundreds of times without knowing that’s what it was.

“Indeed, our particular interest isn’t only in telling the history and stories of Exeter past, but how hints and evidence of the city’s history still exist around every corner in buildings, place names and in the ground itself – as long as you know what you’re looking for.”

Secret Exeter

By Tim Isaac and Chris Hallam

Published by: Amberley

96 pages

100 pictures

Author information

Chris Hallam was born in Peterborough in 1976. He moved to Exeter in 2005 to write for a monthly DVD review magazine which future co-author Tim Isaac was the editor of. He has since written for the Exeter Express and Echo, Exeter and Devon Living and has a weekly history column in the Midweek Herald, Sidmouth Herald and Exmouth Journal. He has written for the national titles, Geeky Monkey, All About History, Best of British, Yours and Yours Retro magazines and has written several children’s annuals. He wrote the book, A-Z of Exeter: Places, People, History, which is also available from Amberley.

2000AD timeline 12: 1988

1988 (Progs 555-607)

January: (Progs 557/558): Nemesis Book 7 The Two Torquemadas ends (Pat Mills/John Hickleton) ends and is followed immediately by Book 8: Purity’s Story (Mills/David Roach).

(Progs 558-559): Zenith returns in a two-episode interlude (Grant Morrison/Steve Yeowell).

February: (Prog 560): Strontium Dog returns in Stone Killers (Grant/Ezquerra).

(Prog 561): First Hap Hazard (Steve Dillon).

March: (Prog 566): First Tyranny Rex (John Smith/Steve Dillon).

Flux, John Brosnan’s occasional movies feature first appears.

April: (Prog 568): Rogue Trooper is back in Hit (Simon Geller/Steve Dillon).

(Prog 570): Dredd Mega-epic Oz comes to an end.

(Prog 571): Luke Kirby debuts in the unusual (but great) 2000AD strip, Summer Magic (Alan McKenzie/John Ridgway).

May: (Prog 573): After ten years, Carlos Ezquerra draws his last Strontium Dog (he returns to it much later).

(Prog 576): Bad Company II: The Krool Heart begins (Peter Milligan/Brett Ewins/Jim McCarthy) begins.

July: (Prog 581): ABC Warriors adventure, The Black Hole ends (Mills/Simon Bisley/SMS).

(Prog 585) Peter Milligan’s Tribal Memories begins.

First ever Judge Dredd Mega-Special is published.

August: (Prog 586): Nemesis, Book 9: Deathbringer (Mills/Hickleton).

(Prog 589): New look: 2000AD cover goes all glossy and shiny! Four colour pages are added – the second episode of Judge Dredd: Twister (art by John Ridgway) now goes into full colour after being black and white for part one (a Wizard of Oz reference). Zenith returns and Slaine The King begins properly (Pat Mills/Glenn Fabry). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cover price rises to 35p.

November: Prog 600! Strontium Dog: The Final Solution begins (Alan Grant/Simon Harrison).

(Prog 601): Special one-off Bad Company story, Simply. Art is produced in four and half hours by Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy to raise money for charity.

December:

The first ever 2000AD Winter Special is published. It includes new adventures for Dredd, Anderson, Zenith, Strontium Dog and Summer Magic’s Luke Kirby and an Alan Moore scripted Rogue Trooper reprinted from the 2000AD annual 1984.

Elsewhere:

Transvision Vamp release a song, ‘Hanging With Halo Jones.’

January: War comic Battle (est: 1974) merges into The Eagle.

Children’s Star Wars animated spin-off, Droids, follows Ewoks onto Children’s BBC.

February: Robocop goes on general release in the UK.

Comedy sci-fi Red Dwarf debuts on BBC Two. It’s arrival is almost entirely unnoticed.

March: Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman graphic novel, The Killing Joke is published.

Rob Reiner’s movie fantasy, The Princess Bride is released. Now a much-loved classic, it flops on its original release.

May: Starship Troopers author, Robert E. Heinlein dies, aged eighty.

July: Japanese anime, Akira is released in Japan (in UK in 1991).

September: Crisis, a new fortnightly comic begins. It aims to be e political and slightly more mature version of 2000AD. Early stories include Third World War (Mills/Ezquerra) and The New Statesmen (John Smith/Jim Baikie). The comic runs for 63 issues before folding in 1991.

Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi movie, The Running Man is released in the UK.

October: Deadline, a monthly comic/magazine is launched. Unlike Crisis, it is not directly connected to 2000AD but is started by 2000AD artists, Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins. A fun combination of comic stories and articles, Deadline continues until 1995. The story, Tank Girl is a major success, later spawning a feature film and launching the career of young Jamie Hewlett, future co-creator of virtual band, Gorillaz with Blur’s Damon Albarn.

Charles Dance genetic engineering drama, First Born arrives on BBC One.

Another science-fiction comic, Wildcat is launched. It survives for only twelve issues, ending in March 1989.

December: Fantasy film, Willow is released in the UK. It flops.

Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines and websites including The Companion, Yours Retro, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle, Metalzoic and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In the past, he wrote for Metro.co.uk, Radio Times, DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He also provided all the written content for the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars as well as for sections of the 2014 South Park annual and all the 2015 Transformers annual.

TV 1981: The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy

Article by Chris Hallam. First published: 2017.

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.”

The Stainless Steel Rat story

By Chris Hallam.

First published: 2018.

He was born, got drafted, sang the blues, got his revenge, saved the world, ran for president, went to Hell and joined the circus. Chris Hallam takes a look at the many ups and downs of “Slippery Jim” diGriz, AKA The Stainless Steel Rat…

DAY OF THE RAT

It began as two short stories, The Stainless Steel Rat (1957) and the Misplaced Battleship (1960). Their author, Connecticut-born World War II veteran Harry Harrison, then in his thirties, had a long history as a writer of comics and short stories, but was on the verge of becoming a full-time novelist. In 1961, he expanded the two stories into his second full-length novel, The Stainless Steel Rat.

The book established the essentials which would characterise the series over the next half century. The book is essentially the tale of James Bolivar “Slippery Jim” diGriz, a professional thief living in the distant future. Providing his own narrative, diGriz views himself as a “rat” within the otherwise flawless pristine high technology stainless steel environment of his time. Despite this, he is not wholly without morals and has a strict code of ethics regarding not injuring or killing anyone in the course of his work. He also has a rather romantic Robin Hood-style approach to his duties, generally targeting major corporations as targets for his own crimes. Like any ‘rat’, however, he has had to do what he can to adapt to his situation and survive.

Ironically, just as we meet him, diGriz becomes unstuck, however, and he is captured and recruited by an anti-crime organisation called the Special Corps. Dedicated to putting the principle “use a thief to catch a thief” into practice, the Corps persuade diGriz to do their bidding. diGriz, keen to avoid a prison sentence, reluctantly agrees.

His first mission concerns an investigation into the construction of a battleship. With war eradicated, having been recognised as ridiculously impractical and expensive in the future, the Corps are completely mystified as to why any planet would need to be developing a warship in the first place. diGriz investigates it. In the course of his adventure, he encounters Harold Inskipp, the director of the Corps, once a notorious criminal himself and Professor Coypu, the Corps head scientist, who like Q in the James Bond saga, has a penchant for ingenious gadgetry. As with Bond (the films of which, this first book predates) gadgets and disguises play a recurrent role in the Stainless Steel Rat.

Jim also meets another crucial figure in this first adventure, the feisty Angelina, another (largely) reformed criminal who retains residual psychotic tendencies but who ultimately becomes his wife. In The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970) the couple have two twin sons, James and Bolivar diGriz, both named, with a touch of ego, after their father, James Bolivar diGriz.

RISE OF THE RAT

Harrison then had a busy Sixties spent establishing himself as a novelist. He completed the three books of the Deathworld trilogy, which would later be expanded further. He wrote Bill The Galactic Hero, a humorous riposte to the ultra-conservative science fiction of Robert A. Heinlein, author of Starship Troopers. He wrote the overpopulation saga, Make Room! Make Room! which was later made into the Charlton Heston film, Soylent Green in 1973. He wrote other books too.

From 1960 onwards, he would in fact produce on average of more than one novel a year for every one of the remaining fifty-two years of his life.

But it wasn’t until 1970, that he returned to Slippery Jim diGriz. The next decade saw the Stainless Steel Rat become a full-blown book series as Jim underwent numerous adventures.

The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970) has a now rather dated sounding slightly Carry On film style storyline as the newly domesticated Jim is forced to team up with a tribe of beautiful sexually liberated Amazon women who are humanity’s last best hope against an interstellar war being launched by the Grey Men of the Planet Cliaand.

The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (1972), meanwhile, sees diGriz forced to use a time helix to travel back to the 1970s (not 1984 as some blurbs claim) after certain people including Angelina and their two infant sons are suddenly erased out of existence. An enjoyable adventure sees our hero falling in with some Hell’s Angels and even witnessing a high technology version of the Napoleonic Wars in early 19th century England which the wrong side seem to be winning.

The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! (1978) sees diGriz facing twin challenges from the Internal and External Revenue Service and a crop of alien invaders hell-bound on overrunning the galaxy.

The Stainless Steel Rat for President (1982) meanwhile sees Jim and Angelina drawn into an election against a corrupt South American style dictator after investigating a murder. Time is clearly moving on by this point as Jim and Angelina’s sons, James and Bolivar are, by now growing into young men.

MIND YOUR LANGUAGE

One feature occasionally referred to in the books is diGriz’s society’s utter fluency in the real life language of Esperanto. This in fact reflected Harrison’s own enthusiasm for the language. Speaking in Brighton in 1987, he said:

“The Esperanto movement is international, it breeds international co-operation… it was virtually wiped out during the war – the Nazis were against it, the Stalinists were against it, and the Americans were totally indifferent! I kid you not! The world knows no bounds. I have a great interest in languages, as well as in science fiction, and the two of them finally met in The Stainless Steel Rat books.”

Today it is believed up to two million people worldwide, to varying degrees, speak Esperanto. This is somewhere below the levels envisaged by Harrison. But then, The Stainless Steel Rat books are set in the 346th century, so there is still plenty of time.

THE COMIC STRIP PRESENTS…

In 1979, it was decided to adapt the Stainless Steel Rat for the new-ish British science fiction comic, 2000AD. Although Harrison actually had some experience in comics himself, scripting duties went to the comic’s founding editor Kelvin Gosnell. Spanish-born artist Carlos Ezquerra, a major figure in the creation of 2000AD legends, Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog was tasked with bringing the first book to life on the page. The story was a success, the combination of sci-fi, dry humour and action, fitting in well in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Harrison himself expressed his support with a letter to Tharg’s Nerve Centre (it is unclear what he spent the resulting £3 prize money on) and Ezquerra’s visuals were well received. He gave Angelina, a suitably fiery Latin-style temperament. Many felt Ezquerra’s version of diGriz owed something to the Hollywood actor, James Coburn.

A sequel soon followed, 2000AD skipping over the sexist second book and moving straight onto the third, the time travelling Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World which ran in 1979 and 1980. After some hiatus, Gosnell (now no longer 2000AD’s editor) and Ezquerra returned with the third and perhaps best of the three comic adaptations, The Stainless Steel Rat For President which coincided neatly with Ronald Reagan’s re-election as US president in 1984, running into 1985.

Given the success of the series which managed to be both generally faithful to the original books but still entertaining, it’s surprising 2000AD never attempted to adapt any of the other books. Indeed, the three stories remain the sole example of any straightforward book to comic adaptation in the comic’s forty-one-year history thus far.

RAT REBORN

Today, we are probably rather overfamiliar with the concept of the prequel. Yet in 1985, Harry Harrison’s decision to explore the early days of the adolescent Jim diGriz’s burgeoning criminal career, particularly his tutelage by his mentor, known only as the Bishop was actually a very good one. The three prequels A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born (1985), The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987) and The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues (1994) are all fresh, engaging and entertainingly written. And even if they do raise awkward tedious Star Wars type questions about which order the books should be read in, we can surely forgive Harry Harrison for that.

RAT REDUX

Harry Harrison died in 2012, aged 87. He left an impressive legacy, in addition to the books already mentioned above, he produced the Eden trilogy of novels which imagined that the fatal asteroid which is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs had never struck the Earth, the Viking-orientated Hammer and the Cross saga, seven Deathworld books, the Bill the Galactic Hero novels and numerous stand-alone titles including The Techncolor Time Machine, Star Smashers of the Galaxy Raiders and Queen Victoria’s Revenge.

The Stainless Steel Rat books in fact reflect only a sizeable minority off his prolific literary output. Yet he was writing them right to the end. His final published book was The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010).

THE RAT PACK


The complete works…

The Stainless Steel Rat (1957): Short story
The Misplaced Battleship (1960): Short story
The Stainless Steel Rat (1961)
The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge (1970)
The Stainless Steel Rat Saves The World (1972)
The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You! (1978)
The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat (1981): Short story
The Stainless Steel Rat For President (1982)
A Stainless Steel Rat Is Born (1985)
The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted (1987)
You Can Be The Stainless Steel Rat (1988)
The Fourth Law of Robotics (1989): Short story
The Golden Years of The Stainless Steel Rat (1993): Short story
The Stainless Steel Rat Sings the Blues (1994)
The Stainless Steel Rat Goes to Hell (1996)
The Stainless Steel Rat Joins the Circus (1999)
The Stainless Steel Rat Returns (2010)

Book review: 101 Ways To Win An Election

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.

The Crichton Factor

The science fiction of Michael Crichton

First published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2016.

The Admirable Crichton

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

WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM

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

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

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

The Andromeda Strain

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

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

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

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

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

The Terminal Man

Book: 1969. Film: 1974

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

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

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

Westworld

Filmed: 1973

Sequel: Futureworld (1976)

TV series: Beyond Westworld (1980)

HBO TV series due: 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Congo

Book: 1980

Filmed: 1995

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looker

Filmed: 1981

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

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

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

Not bad for 1981.

Runaway

Filmed: 1984

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

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

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

Sphere

Book: 1987

Filmed: 1998

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mid-life Crichton

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

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

Jurassic Park

Book: 1990 Filmed: 1993

Jurassic Park: The Lost World

Book: 1995 Filmed: 1997

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

The results almost speak for themselves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Timeline

Book: 1999

Filmed: 2003

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

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

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

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

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

Box out: Also by Michael Crichton…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CHRIS HALLAM

When the Tripods came to TV

First published: 2018

Chris Hallam examines an alien invasion saga with a difference…

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

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

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

The enemy within

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

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

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

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

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

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

Origin of the species

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

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

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

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

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

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

A trilogy in two parts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The TV trilogy remains forever unfinished.

Back to the future

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

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

The Tripods are back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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