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SMASH!Creative Destruction and change

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, March 14, 2020 12:33:56
Spot the Difference…

Lew Stringer recently revisited the traumatic week in 1969 when the comic SMASH! was completely revamped . The article here at gives a good summary and evokes the distress some of us felt. It also raises some interesting points about change and the management of change. I’ll talk about the revamped comic at the end, but just to get to the essential points:

The main reason most of us bought SMASH! 51 years ago was because (like all the old Power Comics) it contained a mix of Marvel superhero reprints and anarchic British comedy. As Lew points out, this had gradually been changing over the previous year due to internal management shifts within the International Publishing Corporation (IPC). But January 1969 was the “big bang” when the comic was revamped to the taste of staff from the prevailing Fleetway comics. An article by the fictional new office boy, “Mike” (‘Smash Chat’) informed us that they’d decided to give the superheroes a rest for a bit. It was my first taste of corporate bullshit. There may have been sound reasons for reducing the Marvel Comics reprints (as weeklies, the several Power Comics published by IPC’s Odhams subsidiary had come close to exhausting the supply of monthly Marvel comics) but as Lew points out, the bottom line is that the old Smash was not to the taste of the prevailing management *. So like most forced recipients of change, I was probably ( 51 years is a long time to remember accurately) predisposed to resist!

*Spider-Man and Ghost Rider reprints popped up the following year in the revamped TV21.

And yet I stuck with the new SMASH! I still have a copy from September 1969 The Warriors of the World feature on the cover helpfully shows that this is the 26th issue of the new series, which suggests that the comic won me over.

A simplistic reading might be that this was just Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction at work, with innovation pushing aside the exhausted old guard and delivering new benefits to the consumer. The lesson might be that it’s better to embrace change rather than resist it because – in the end – you will come round. Better sooner, rather than later.

But, it’s not quite that simple. The Fleetway arm of IPC were the old guard. Odhams’ Power Comics had been the young Turks winning over the audience with new ideas. If anything, this was the reverse of creative destruction, with the old monoliths being rebuilt. And to complicate things – while the look of the new SMASH! was more conventional with distinctive artists like Ken Reid and Mike Higgs, writers on the old SMASH! were employed on the new SMASH! They may have been tales that looked more corporate but they still had the same inventiveness. So any benefits may have been derived from the quality of the staff, rather than the management vision.

To sum up, we’re told that change is good. In small steady doses that may be true (Fleetway had already slipped traditional strips like Sergeant Rock, Paratrooper and King of the Ring in among the superheroes the previous year). When big change does come, the staff and the punters have little choice but to accept it and make the best of it. Since we can’t live parallel lives we never really know if it’s for the better, although as Lew’s article shows, external events often have a trick of undermining the best laid plans. What you can be sure of is A: There is no point telling management their plans won’t work B: If it doesn’t work, you can be sure it will because of external factors that no-one could have predicted C: By the time it doesn’t work, the people who made the original decision will have moved on to new successes.

The Rebbel Robot

Many of the new comic strips were good. Rebbels on the Run had been a fairly conventional theme – three orphaned brothers run away from a care home rather than be split up. But with this issue the story morphed into The Rebbel Robot. The brothers meet the mysterious Professor Bodkin who tells them that their dead father had been a secret service agent. Just before he died, Frank Rebbel allowed Bodkin to feed his brain patterns into an electronic brain which is now enclosed in a robot body.

Other stories included Master of the Marsh, in which a strange hermit called Patchman (implied to be a reincarnation of Hereward the Wake) teaches the working class children at Marshside Secondary School. This weeks episode is like a reverse of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, with ‘Knocker Reeves’ trying to sabotage his classmates chances in the County sports day. There are eleven dramatic strips (some reprints) all well-told and exciting. Janus Stark and Cursitor Doom are among them, but there’s a host of lesser-known strips. And that’s before you get to the comedy strips.

It strikes me now that the most ironic of the strips is The Battle of Britain. Not a wartime strip, it tells how Secret Service agent Simon Kane and his West Indian assistant Tubby oppose “the power crazed Baron Rudolph” who has seized control of London and most of Britain. I believe this was a reprint from the early 1960’s, but with sharp, clean Geoff Campion artwork this was one of my favourite strips. By September 1969, Kane has managed to rescue the Prime Minister from a prison camp in Hyde Park and is working with army loyalists to smuggle the Prime Minister out to Canada. The irony is, of course, that IPC’s chairman Cecil King had been sacked by the board after a farcical attempt to launch a coups against Harold Wilson’s government in May 1968. If only they’d got Ken Reid to draw that one up!

Wolf 359 on the rocks

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, March 14, 2020 00:16:45
Sara Shane, Patrick O’Neal and Ben Wright sip Martini’s in Wolf 359

Synchronicity reared its’ head this morning when I came across this recipe for the Carole Landis Martini on the @silverscreensup Twitter account. Only the night before, I’d been watching The Outer Limits episode Wolf 359, where philanthropist Philip Exeter Dundee (Ben Wright) asks, “Didn’t DeVoto write a whole book on the Martini”?

In the pre-Internet age, it would have taken some detailed research to discover that Dundee was referring to historian Bernard DeVoto, whose curmudgeonly essay The Hour was published in book form in 1951. It refers to 6pm, the cocktail hour which is illustrated by scriptwriter Seeleg Lester in the TV episode when scientist Patrick O’Neal proudly mixes his perfect cocktails as thick steaks sizzle on the barbeque.

By coincidence, the Silver Screen Suppers recipe links to an article by Richard Ehrlich which quotes DeVoto’s description of the Martini as , “The supreme American gift to world culture.”

Wolf 359 – the malevolent force escapes from the planet

Until now, my main fascination with Wolf 359 (from a screen story by Quatermass Xperiment adaptor Richard Landau) was the concept of a tiny planet, created by O’Neal in the lab funded by Wright in order to promote space research. With evolution speeded up, O’Neal is able to observe the growth of microscopic life, and evidence of war, cruelty and inhumanity but unaware that a malevolent force is issuing from the planet and invading his home.

I first saw this 1964 episode in 2005, and it seemed clear that it must have influenced Jack Kirby when he was drawing Superman’s Pal, Jimmy Olsen issue 142 in 1971. Here, Superman and Jimmy Olsen discover that scientist Dabney Donovan has created a miniature planet in a lab beneath an ancient graveyard. Having said that, Kirby’s humanistic instincts took the basic concept to another level. In the TV show, the ‘alien’ is a micro-relative of Hob from Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit. The ‘alien’ is a science-fiction embodiment of ancient evil, bringing out the worst instincts of the microscopic creatures on the tiny planet.Director Laslo Benedek (Death of a Salesman – 1951) employed some stirring horror film iconography as the prairie wolves outside the lab react to its presence. But Kirby turned the concept round by having the scientist project images from old horror films onto the planet Transilvane. The microscopic life forms are natural mimics which actually take on the forms of vampires and werewolves. Kirby’s humanism detects the need for self-determination and self-preservation in the creatures. For them, the scientist Donovan is the malevolent God, who regards planet Transilvane as nothing more than an experiment.

Count Dragorin and Werewolf

On Friday the 13th I could do nothing less than succumb to influences on me and mix up some vodka martini’s as I reflected on Wolf 359 and The Man From Transilvane. I’d noted before that Ben Wright, the actor playing Dundee, had a slight physical resemblance to Walt Disney. But now I see that he was the voice of Roger Radcliffe, owner of Pongo in the first Disney version of 101 Dalmations. Can I find a link between Disney and Transilvane? Give me a few more Martini’s and I’m sure I will!

Cat and the Canary (LIVE)

Uncategorised Posted on Wed, March 11, 2020 06:03:18

Dr Terror reviews The Cat and the Canary Richmond Theatre (and touring)
If you go back far enough, what are now the creakiest of cliiches were presumably fresh as daisies. I couldn’t help reminding myself of this while watching The Cat and the Canary unfold: it had first appeared as a play in 1922, after all. That’s a full thirty years before The Mousetrap with which it shares many…er…trappings, and The Mousetrap has been running forever.

I was thus prepared to let every thunderclap, snipped phone line, ghostly gurgle and secret passage wash over me. There’s nothing here that you haven’t seen many, many times before even if you have never experienced any of the film or TV adaptations (I only had the vaguest of memories of the Bob Hope one) – but it’s all so comforting and reassuring. In the end, even if it maybe didn’t introduce these elements, when this play first premiered on Broadway, they would have been relatively unfamiliar to contemporary audiences. It’s just that it’s now nearly a century later.

The stock characters are also deeply familiar – as are the actors playing them: didn’t the jittery vet (Mark Jordon) used to be the ginger one in Heartbeat? Wasn’t the glamorous author (Tracy Shaw) a regular at the Rover’s Return not so long ago? Will the prim Aunt take that look off her face…or could she be Marti Webb? They all look quite a bit older than you remember them being with the exception of pugilistic Londoner Gary Webster who could still be minding the lockup for Arthur Daley. The icing on the cake has to be Britt Eckland – yes, THE Britt Eckland – pulling all the stops out as the spooky housekeeper, Mrs Pleasant.

The plot is ridiculous and makes no sense whatsoever but, after the last series of Doctor Who, I’m used to that happening. Would I recommend it as a night out? I’m honestly not sure.
I think it depends what you’re looking for. As a whole it has the aroma of a month old Gorgonzola – but forget the whole…just savour the sum of the parts.

Till Death us do Part (1968)

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, March 07, 2020 19:52:48
The last time he’ll smile ’til 1966

Till Death us do Part is that rarity – a movie spun-off from a TV show which feels like it adds more to the story. Director Norman Cohen, who would go on to helm the first film version of Dad’s Army (1971) also directed the semi-documentary The London Nobody Knows ( 1969 – based on Geoffrey Fletcher’s book) which may explain the authenticity of this movie.

Johnny Speight’s 1966 BBC TV series was contemporary – so contemporary that sometimes the scripts were late – and usually centred upon arguments between Alf Garnett (Warren Mitchell), his son-in-law Mike (Anthony Booth) and daughter Rita (Una Stubbs), both of whom lodged with Alf and wife Else (Dandy Nichols) in their terraced house in Wapping.

The movie was made by British Lion soon after the TV series had been cancelled in mid-1968. The lateness of Speight’s scripts is given as one reason for the cancellation, although the controversy over the political arguments in the show (and Garnett’s frequent use of the then-offensive word bloody) made the show unpopular with an incoming BBC management. Speight and Cohen give the movie an epic scope by devoting the first hour to the Second World War.

Bob Grant, Sam Kydd, Bill Maynard & Michael Robbins listen to Alf’s theory

Opening with a black-and-white newsreel showing Nazi tanks massing, the movie picks up Alf Garnett’s commentary, “They’re all cardboard! He’s probably got men inside pedalling! It’s all propaganda! That’s yer Goebbels- he’s famous for it! Propaganda!” Throughout the TV series there had been controversy over whether Speight was satirising or espousing Garnett’s bigoted views, but with a wartime setting it is clear that Garnett is the archetypal pub bore. An early scene shows drinkers listening in silence as Garnett puts forward his theory that Dunkirk is actually part of Churchill’s grand strategy to strengthen the British forces. And before that, Garnett is shown being taken by surprise in his tin bath, when Chamberlain announces that the war Alf said would never happen, is actually happening.

After the first hour the action jumps forward the March 1966 General Election and Alf arguing with daughter Rita (Una Stubbs) about whether she can put a Labour poster in his window. Cohen captures the frenetic world of the TV series well – Una Stubbs’ affection and exasperation coming across as she argues with Alf while clearing the plates from the table (Dandy Nichols, sitting at the table as Else, neutral in the argument, suddenly puts her hand on Una’s to stop her taking the Swiss Roll away). Terry Knight’s detailed set design captures the mood of the 1960’s – halfway between Victorian and Elizabethan ages – Una’s micro mini skirt and mod design washing up liquid set against the 1930’s kitchen implements and wallpaper.

Garnett’s home (ironically shown as Jamaica Street by an insert when Alf mistakenly receives call-up papers) is represented by a lovingly created external set at Shepperton, which allows Cohen to take the characters through the ‘phony war’, the blitz, VE day, and through to the 1960’s. Powerfully, this also allows Speight to represent the experience of actual Londoners. Having survived the bombs, the Garnett’s find that their house is listed for demolition by the council (the actual Garnet Street in Wapping had already been demolished). When valuers arrive to put through the compulsory purchase, Alf is told that his house is worth £400.

But I bought it off the Council for Fifteen Hundred,” Alf protests, “And they gave me a mortgage!” The valuer (Frank Thornton) explains that £400 is the land value. There is no property value.

Alf refuses to sell, but the bulldozers move in, his local pub is boarded up and workmen begin to gut the neighbouring houses. Finally, Alf arrives home to find Else, Mike and Rita packing up and moving to the new tower block, where the council offer luxuries such as an indoor toilet. Defeated, Alf finally follows . But as he arrives at the brutalist concrete block, he realises he doesn’t know the apartment number. He begins knocking on doors as, on a lower level, the family go out to the cinema.

When the TV series returned in 1970, the climax of the movie was ignored and the Garnett’s were still settled in their terraced house*. Set against the context of the TV series, the end of the movie may be disconcerting, but it’s a small price to pay. The film itself hangs together well. Perhaps because the movie had to pass the British Board of Film censors, there are few of Garnett’s more outrageous racial comments and most of those are filtered through the wartime sequences ( although one slightly ugly scene with actress Cleo Sylvestre is singled out for inclusion in the original trailer, suggesting that the producers were trying to capitalise on the controversy of the TV shows).

However, the movie is generally funny, if you can be entertained by seeing man at his most craven and self-interested. The scene where Alf, craving some milk for his tea at a time of wartime rationing, snatches baby Rita’s milk bottle and tries to unobtrusively lighten his tea before Else comes back in the room has echoes of Laurel and Hardy .

The other point of note is that the film is pretty representative of the British comedy scene in 1969 with uncredited background characters being played by now familiar faces. Michael Robbins from On The Buses plays the landlord of Alf’s local (who refuses to give credit when the Blitz begins on the basis that his customers may be killed before they can settle up) while Bob Grant from the same show is one of the pub regulars. A restrained Brian Blessed plays an Anti Aircraft Gun Sergeant, who takes an interest one of of Alf’s neighbours. She is played by Kate Williams, who would go on to star in ITV’s Love Thy Neighbour (where bigoted Eddie Booth (Jack Smethurst) would refuse to watch the BBC because they had “That Man, and his uncouth language!”. Tommy Godfrey , from the same show , is another of Alf’s pub audience.

*In ‘Dock Pilfering’ (11 October 1972) Alf is gloating that the house is now worth £20,000 under a Tory Government, whereas it was only worth £600 under Labour. When Mike counters that it is just inflation, Alf retorts that, “According to Labour” the £2.00 a week Mike pays in rent is now worth only 25 shillings (£1.25). So, “On the black day you married my daughter and moved in here you were paying £2.00 a week rent in a £600 house. But, now thanks to me and the Tory Government, you’re only paying 25 shillings rent for a room in a £20,000 house! Under us, YOU’VE GOT ON!”

Dr Who: The Ascension of the Chibnall

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, February 29, 2020 07:33:38

The Ascension of the Cybermen – penultimate episode of the latest series of Doctor Who, contains a perplexing sub-plot in which an orphan is discovered in 1920’s Eire. Obviously, all will be revealed in the final episode, but it seems clear that this sequence is part- metaphor, part Roman-a-clef for Producer/Script Editor Chris Chibnall.

It’s well known that Chris Chibnall was a fan of the old Doctor Who tv series and the early scenes represent young Chris being adopted and given a “fam” (as he calls it) by Doctor Who Fandom (or “Famdom”). As he grows, young Brendan (Evan McCabe) is encouraged to join the Garda (a metaphor for the Doctor Who Appreciation Society).

The scene where Brendan confronts a robber with his bag of swag, represents young Chris Chibnall’s appearance on the BBC ‘Open Air’ TV series, where he criticised the current Doctor Who production team (including writer Jane Baker and producer John Nathan-Turner) for the slipshod nature of The Trial of a Time Lord. When Brendan is shot and falls off the cliff, this represents the dismissive attitude of the BBC organisation closing ranks – the presenter telling them, “It’s just a kids show, after all.” And that falling off the cliff could also represent the social exposure to the outside world – being a Dr Who fan was not cool in the 1980’s.

Brendan’s miracle escape, and progression to his retirement as a Garda, represent Chibnall’s subsequent successful career as a writer and TV producer. His retirement and presentation with a clock, must surely represent the peak of his career, returning to become Producer/Script Editor (or “Showrunner” as we’re now supposed to call it) of Dr Who.

Does old Brendan look a bit like Peter Capaldi?

But then, at the moment of his retirement Brendan is confronted by his foster father and the Garda who was there at the day of his discovery. Strangely unaged, they take him into a ‘back room’ that has doors and windows symbolic of a TARDIS. This must surely represent the Doctor Who fans who – unlike Chibnall – have refused to move on, and want everything to remain as it was in 1979.

The Doctor Who fans wire Brendan up to electrical equipment telling him they’re sorry, but they must be sure no trace is left. Again, it is likely that this is symbolic of the internet hate delivered to Chris Chibnall by Doctor Who fans, particularly the wish-dream “fake news” that he and Jodie Whittaker had been sacked.

No doubt there will be more revelations in the final episode of Dr Who, but Ascension of the Cybermen will probably go down in TV history for this remarkable piece of autobiographical writing about the producer’s long association with the TV series.

The Saint I Ain’t: The Biography of Leslie Charteris

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, February 22, 2020 16:56:01

The Saint I Ain’t by Ian Dickerson (Chinbeard Books) relates the long and elusive life of Leslie Charteris, biographer of the fabulous Simon Templar. “What is interesting is either classified or scandalous”, said Charteris in 1969, declining to help a would-be Boswell with anything that should be printed less than 25 years after his funeral. As Charteris passed away in 1993, one can only speculate that some heavenly intervention finally brought this volume to fruition.

The glimpses of Charteris’ life we were allowed in the past gave an enviable image of a character travelling the globe while dictating the latest exploits of his hero. A real-life template for Peter Wyngarde’s TV crime fighter Jason King. Ian Dickerson has excavated a more complex set of facts. Coming at a time when the ungodly seem determined to corral the multitudes into boxes, he presents a picture of a man who would not be boxed.

Leslie Charles Bower-Yin was born in Singapore in May 1907. His father, Yin Suat Chwan had studied medicine in Michigan and Toronto before completing his studies in London. There he met and married Lydia Bower, the daughter of his landlord in New Cross. Mixed marriages were completely taboo in those days – Leslie and his brother were outcasts as a result of everyday racism – and in 1919 their mother ended her marriage, enrolling the boys in a British public school.

Leslie had already learned to take refuge in the swashbuckling fiction of Chums magazine and determined to become a writer, despite a lack of encouragement from some of his teachers. After the obligatory period of poverty, Leslie Charteris (as he had become) finally sold a novel (X Esquire) to Ward Lock in 1927. The following year, he published his first Saint novel, Meet The Tiger. Yet, even having established himself Charteris was restless. He gradually established himself in America, where the pay-checks were bigger, although it took much determination and the wooing of connections to overcome the Chinese Exclusion Act under which people, “were excluded from permanent residence if they had 50% or more oriental blood.” However, Ian notes that , even after becoming an American citizen Charteris missed bitter so much that, “he would jump on a plane to London, drink a pint or two of English beer and then fly back again.”

In an early example of attempting to sweat his assets Charteris retained copyright in The Saint and tried to maximise returns from every form of exploitation. Charteris ‘composed’ the whistled theme – the musical equivalent of a Stick Man – that was used on radio, in films and incorporated into the themes of the TV series, “meaning the composers royalties mounted up.” Charteris wrote the newspaper comic strips, supervised the radio shows and even tried to mount a musical. Dickerson notes that Charteris was controlling, reproducing some of his argumentative correspondence with collaborators who failed to match expectations.

And yet, who can blame him? Writers are generally ripped off. Ian records an early attempt by Amalgamated Press, publishers of his Saint stories in Thriller to publish a knock-off called ‘The Buccaneer’ in The Pilot. The magazine’s editor Hedley O’Mant was also the author of ‘The Buccaneer’ stories and explained that it was actually a ‘parody’ of The Saint which should have been accepted as a compliment. Dickerson notes that, “Leslie was in a tough position, for he couldn’t take legal action against the firm that were publishing so much of his work.” Some years later, Charteris did take action against an American magazine that had imported unsold copies into the UK, depriving him of British reprint rights. “Leslie sued, and (the publishers) settled out of court, but nothing of his ever appeared again in the magazine.” Charteris entertained the quite unique notion that a writer should enjoy the majority of returns from his brainchild and was better placed than some random publisher or producer to determine what was best for that character.

Coming in at 358 pages, The Saint I Ain’t delivers a fascinating level of detail. There are many revelations, some which may disillusion (particularly the ‘woke’), some which will astound. More information on the Chinbeard books website

Spectrum Is Indestructible

Uncategorised Posted on Tue, February 18, 2020 08:04:45

Originally conceived to mark the 50th anniversary of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons‘ first TV broadcast, Spectrum Is Indestructible shows the wisdom of not being held hostage to journalistic conceits like anniversaries.

Fred McNamara quickly realised that he wasn’t going to be able to squeeze, “nearly 20 years of ideas, theories and general musings” into the original timescale and his publisher Chinbeard Books wisely agreed to wait. Spectrum Is Indestructible is more than comprehensive – 200 pages of closely packed type, written with enthusiasm but written well.

Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was unique among TV shows in being at the centre of a vast merchandising campaign of toys, books and comics. As it wasn’t entirely a financial success, Britain didn’t see anything like it again until Star Wars. Fred McNamara recognises that, “in this pre-digital age, it’s remarkable to witness this meticulously crafted promotional campaign.” and covers both the TV show and the comics and annuals which both heralded and succeeded it.

McNamara devotes a full chapter to each episode of the TV show, delivering insightful commentary that inspires the reader to go back to the DVD’s. Captain Black is often characterised as an unemotional zombie, for instance, but the review of Operation Time highlights the latent sadism in his pursuit of Dr Magnus, “fantastically executed in terms of pace and visuals..the three minute sequence is perfectly delivered…it’s not enough for Black to shoot Magnus…there has to be a prey to worry, petrify.”

While McNamara appreciates the highlights of each episode, he is also well aware of the series shortcomings. But while he often skewers plot holes and absurdities, he does so with a sense of affection and perspective and is more than appreciative of the series as a whole. He even comes up with ideas that might have benefitted the show: in Spectrum Strikes Back, for instance, what if the hapless Captain Indigo had been another Captain Brown. “Wouldn’t that have been a great running gag? Every time Spectrum hire a new Captain Brown, he falls prey to the Mysterons.”

You can find details of Spectrum Is Indestructible at the Chinbeard Books website

Telling Tales with Mr Jones

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, February 16, 2020 18:35:19

Somewhere around the 50 minute mark, MR JONES (2020) becomes one of the most thrilling movies I’ve seen for some time. In 1930’s Soviet Russia, Welsh journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) evades his escort and drops into the hidden Ukrainian wasteland of starving farmers.

Jones has come to Russia to answer a question: “There’s a Global Economic Collapse. Meanwhile the Soviets are having a spending spree. How? The numbers don’t add up. The Kremlin’s broke.” Within minutes he finds the answer as he’s forced by armed guards to help load grain onto trains. Stalin’s government is selling the grain to pay for the construction of new factories and power plants while in the countryside millions die of starvation. Having got himself so deep, so soon, the viewer asks how is he going to get out of this? And inevitably, the viewer asks did it really happen like this?

The answer seems to be – no, not quite. Begging the question, how many lies can you tell in a film about the truth?

This is not to deny that countless innocent people died for an ideology. Or to deny that the victims of mismanagement were scapegoated as “wreckers” because that ideology could not be seen to fail. Just to ask – when the facts are fascinating – why film-makers inevitably rearrange those facts.

Early in the film, Gareth Jones is invited to a party at the Moscow home of New York Times journalist Walter Duranty (Peter Sarsgaard). It’s the inevitable have-your-cake-and-eat-it soft focus orgy that we are invited to enjoy and abhor (cf SCANDAL). Jones – non-smoking, non-drinking, non-fornicating – stays aloof from it all . A member of the Moscow Press Corps, explaining that reporters are forbidden from travelling outside Moscow, advises Jones he’ll understand the situation better if he reads Poe’s ‘The Masque of the Red Death’. Jones prefers to quote the Welsh poem ‘The Battle of the Trees.’ And that’s the best way to view this film – based on the truth, but halfway between a gothic horror and a misty Welsh quest.

‘Mr Jones’ is framed by scenes of George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) writing ‘Animal Farm‘. Orwell’s ‘narration’ comments on the action while maintaining an allegorical distance. At one point, Orwell meets Jones and helps him to resolve an ethical dilemma about what he learned in Russia. The meeting never really took place, but since the ethical dilemma is in all likelihood also fictional, the two sort of cancel each other out.

The first hour of the movie builds an ominous mood of surveillance, control and suppressed violence. It seems unlikely that – even passing himself off as a researcher for former Prime Minister David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham) – Gareth will be able to make his way into the forbidden zone of the Ukraine. When he finally does so, it seems an act of incredible foolhardiness.

But the facts suggest that Jones managed it because, for foreigners, Moscow was like something out of a Boulting Brothers * movie.  They were able to use western money to buy food and clothing from special stores unavailable to most Russians. The majority of foreigners were so hoodwinked by the myth of the ‘socialist utopia’ that they didn’t need much control and the Russians didn’t expect them to go causing trouble. Malcolm Muggeridge (who is briefly name-checked in the movie played by Michael O’Donnell) actually journeyed into the Caucasus and Ukraine just before Jones and slipped reports of the famine out to the Manchester Guardian in the British Embassy’s diplomatic bag so that they would evade Soviet censorship. Muggeridge’s reports were published anonymously, overshadowed by Jones’ subsequent press conference (this isn’t mentioned in the movie, perhaps justly since Muggeridge seemed to do little to acknowledge Jones in later years).

*starring Ian Carmichael as Gareth Jones, Terry-Thomas as Duranty, Colin Gordon as Muggeridge

In the movie, Jones seems to spend days wandering through the snowy wastes, meeting starving farmers and watching bodies being hauled away. The Soviets have tried to rationalise farming on an industrial scale. When the crops have failed, scapegoats have been found charged with sabotage. Eventually, Jones comes to a city and while interviewing a woman at a queue for bread, has a sack thrown over his head by the secret police. In a cavernous prison, he sees engineers for the Metropolitan-Vickers company who have been arrested on charges of economic sabotage. Jones is told that their fates lie in his hand. He can return to England but if he tells what he has seen in the Ukraine, they will be found guilty in a show trial and sentenced to death. As Jones later tells George Orwell, in the meeting that never took place, “I do have a story, but if I tell it six innocent men will die.” Orwell responds, “Speak the truth, regardless of the consequences.” Jones takes Orwell’s fictional advice and tells the world about the famine in the Ukraine. But the viewer ends up wondering how the MetVick engineers were treated as a result.

In fact, although the real Jones was apprehended by the secret police, they were “polite and respectful” and simply escorted him to the nearest foreign consulate. He left Russia quietly, so no ultimatum was handed to him, and he then held a press conference in Germany. The engineers really were put on trial the following month, but although convicted of “sabotage” were merely expelled.

In the movie – as in life – Jones is stitched up by the Foreign Press Corps who support the Russian government denial that there has ever been a famine in order to protect their visas and jobs. The whitewash is led by Duranty, as much to protect his reputation – the film shows him being woken by a furious call from the New York Times wanting to know why they didn’t get Jones’ story about the famine first. Duranty’s actual rebuttal was titled; ‘Russians Hungry But Not Starving’ and concluded that, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” But despite the personal motivation of the press pack, there was also no political will in the West to recognise what had happened.

Because this is a movie – Gareth Jones does make a final act comeback. And it is based on fact. But despite this personal victory, the wider message was forgotten.

Writing in 1945, George Orwell noted that, “Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles.”

Director Agnieszka Holland has a long distinguished career in Poland, experienced the ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968 and also directed the ‘Moral Midgetry’ episode of The Wire (2004). Screenwriter and producer Andrea Chalupa is the granddaughter of Ukrainian refugees who escaped the events depicted onscreen. She runs Gaslit Nation “a podcast covering corruption in the Trump administration as rising autocracy around the World.” So it seems highly possible that Mr Jones is as much about what’s happening now, as what happened in 1936.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine is an essential accompaniment to Mr Jones

Mr Jones is an entertaining movie which reminds us of a long-suppressed horror. Facts behind the movie can be found in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine (Penguin 2017) which advances the thesis that the famine was an act of deliberate extermination rather than homicidal incompetence. The family of Gareth Jones maintain a website at which you can read his actual reports and diaries at

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