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The Dobermann Always Rings Twice

The Destiny of the Doctor – an Adventure in Time and Trainspotting

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, July 26, 2020 18:31:29

by Harry Dobermann –

When Dr Who reveals in the less than classic episode Black Orchid (an episode best watched with the commentary on so you can hear the star Peter Davison reminding you of every flaw) that as a boy he always wanted to drive a steam train, he nails the hidden destiny of Doctor Who.

British Railways was the state owned railway operator between 1948 and 1997. The British Broadcasting Corporation is the British public service broadcaster, established under Royal Charter in 1927. In 1955, British Rail began a programme of modernisation, replacing steam engines with new diesel locomotives. In 1961, the BBC hired Sydney Newman, to reinvigorate its drama output. Dr Who was one of Newman’s innovations.

In 1942, Ian Allan , a clerk in the Southern Railway publicity section at Waterloo had responded to increasing requests for information about locomotives by publishing the ‘ABC Southern Locomotives’. This led to a series of booklets covering all regions of the United Kingdom, and in 1945, he left Southern Railway to set up Ian Allan Publishing . The company would become the world’s leading transport publisher. Allan also set up the ‘locospotters club’ , organising the ad hoc pastime into a community of 230,000 members pledging not to trespass or misbehave on railway property.

In 1965, the William (Dr Who) Hartnell Fan Club was created, rejuvenating into the Doctor Who Fan Club in 1967 . The original fan club was encouraged and financially supported by the BBC up until the Tom Baker era, when it was succeeded by the independent Doctor Who Appreciation Society. Membership of the DWAS appears to have been on a much smaller scale than the ‘locospotters club’ – a membership of three thousand reflecting the fact that Virgin books would print and sell around 25,000 copies of each novelisation and home video cassettes sold between 20,000 and 50,000 copies.*

Richard Beeching IS The Doctor

In 1963, physicist and engineer Dr Richard Beeching of the British Transport Commission, published a report which advocated addressing falling revenue by cutting a third of passenger services and over half the existing train stations. The proposals were opposed by both unions and the rail travelling public. In 1985, BBC1 controller Michael Grade addressed falling viewing figures by proposing the cancellation of Doctor Who. In response to public outrage, the series was at first “rested” and returned after 18 months with a new lead actor. It was finally “not-renewed” in 1989.

With the 1955 modernisation plan replacing steam with diesel and electric locomotives, and lines being closed as a result of the 1963 Beeching report, a new breed of enthusiast emerged to preserve what was disappearing . These enthusiasts were not content just to record facts about the trains. They wanted to drive the trains. And they wanted to maintain the trains and preserve the lines. The Bluebell Line – opened in 1960 – was the UK’s first standard gauge (ie full size) passenger railway, run by volunteers and reopening part of the Lewes to East Grinstead Line. Today, millions travel on our preserved railways. Many would not consider themselves locospotters or enthusiasts. The preserved railways are just another industry open to the public.

With Doctor Who no longer supported as TV show, it became similar to a redundant train line. Enthusiasts now ran the show. In 1989, Virgin Books had exhausted most of the TV episodes which could be novelised and negotiated the rights to publish original novels. These had more adult themes and a greater imaginative reach than what had been appearing on TV. In 1999, the audio company Big Finish produced an original full-cast Doctor Who adventure The Sirens of Time. This company became very much the equivalent of a Railway Preservation Society. They employed former Doctor Who actors in the same way that the early preserved lines employed former railwaymen to use their skills. Doubtless if things had gone differently, Big Finish would have become the official successor to the BBC in preserving the heritage of Dr Who.

But the BBC began to realize that – while Dr Who had no value as a TV show – it was a valuable merchandising property. As Miles Booy put it in 2012*, “a fan born in the late 60s…has been collecting sets of Doctor Who in some format (novelisations, video, DVD) for literally as long as they could remember. T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock counted out his life in teaspoons – I’ve spent mine waiting for The Sun Makers to come out.” This reflects the experience of railway enthusiasts. As Nicholas Whittaker notes** “At the serious end of the collecting business a stout chequebook is essential”

There’s still life in the old boy yet

In 1993 Virgin proposed to formalise the continuation of TV Doctor into book Doctor with a regeneration into a new doctor “played” (on book covers and personal appearances) by David Troughton. The BBC vetoed it. In 1996 they licensed a film to be made by Universal for the Fox network and the BBC starring Stephen McGann and in 1997 the BBC took back publishing of the New Adventures. Ironically, in 2005 the BBC brought back Doctor Who as a TV show under iconoclastic writer-producer Russell T Davies. This new series strongly reflected the approach of the Virgin New Adventures. As Miles Booy puts it, “Who products which had been precision exercises in niche marketing in the 1990s now constituted a massive Research and Development Division for what became a massive mainstream hit.”

More than this – the new Dr Who was written, directed, produced and acted in by former fans (most prominently Peter Capaldi – fanzine writer in the 1970’s and Dr Who himself in the 21st Century). This reflects the railway experience which Nicholas Whittaker observed: “In the fifties and sixties trainspotting was the Bash Street Kids versus British Rail… grumpy stationmasters and porters…. BUT ever since British Railways took up advertising jobs in the ABC spotting books, the railways have been staffed by former trainspotters. Not only do they get their chance to drive trains and whistle trains off, they welcome fellow enthusiasts with open arms.”

The BBC had realised that there was a commercial advantage in controlling the direction of the character. Again, the application of capitalist instincts reflects the railway experience. Nicholas Whittaker ** notes that by 1994, “Privatization had already reared its ugly head…under the new rules locomotive owners must pay Railtrack for the privilege of travelling its rails. An extra cost that’s too much for some of the preservation groups.”

The question in 2020 is not whether Dr Who has a future, but what direction that future might take. If there comes a time when the BBC can no longer support Dr Who as a TV show, will they “privatise it” and license it to a company like Netflix? Or will they hand it over to the preservationists?

Only time can tell.

*-Love and Monsters:The Doctor Who Experience 1979 to the Present – Miles Booy, I.B.Tauris & Co, 2012

**- Nicholas Whittaker Platform Souls: The trainspotter as 20th century Hero, Icon Books 2015 (Gollancz 1995)

La Grande Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now – We’re Being Shot At) – 1966

Uncategorised Posted on Tue, July 14, 2020 00:32:08
Andre Bourvil, Louis de Funes and Terry-Thomas

In war time Paris, three RAF pilots are helped to escape the Nazi forces by the resistance. Sir Reginald (Terry-Thomas) is guided out into the countryside by decorator Augustin (Andre Bourvil) and orchestra conductor Stanlislas (Louis de Funes)

As the Buddhists say, the greatest treasures are always in the next field. La Grande Vadrouille (1966) translated as The Grand Tour – is the fifth most successful film in French cinema, France’s equivalent of The Italian Job. A dubbed version was released in England by Rank in 1968 under the title Don’t Look Now…We’re Being Shot At! (on a double bill with Don Knotts as The Shakiest Gun In The West ) and was screened on Scottish TV in 1995, but I’d never been aware of it. I only knew Andre Bourvil for his last role, the cynical Inspector Mattei in Le Cercle Rouge (1970), so it was a revelation to come across his more usual comic performance here.

I came across La Grande Vadrouille on an inflatable screen in July 2017 at an open air screening in St Helier on the island of Jersey. It had been organised as part of a Chamber of Commerce festival promoting Brittany. They’d set out 50 seats in the Weighbridge area, but ended up having to beg more chairs from the hotels. As the light fell (and the temperature dropped) an accordionist got the mood going playing period tunes such as Riccardo Del Turco’s Luglio, (1968) which the French know as Le Petit Pain au chocolat and the British know as Herman’s Hermits’ Something is Happening (yes, of course I had to look that up). See and Hear it here.

As the summer sky stubbornly refused to give way to complete darkness, DJ Stefan Rousseau introduced the film to the English audience, explaining that Bourville and Louis de Funes were two of the most popular comic actors in France. There were plenty of French families in the audience and their reactions made it clear that this was a much-loved ritual movie – you could sense the “Don’t tell him, Pike” or “Only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” scenes as they started by the anticipation of the audience.

If it seemed odd watching a comedy about World War Two on an island that had been occupied by the Nazi’s, it was worth remembering that the film was made by people who had lived through the occupation of France (for them the timescale had been the same as setting a 2020 movie in 1996). And as the movie ended to applause at 11pm, with Georges Auric’s soaring theme carrying us into the night, it was certainly clear that this was a feel-good film.

Gerard Oury’s movie has the same surreal overtones as other international spectacles such as Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines . Terry-Thomas’ bomber crew includes Peter, played by Mexican actor Claudio Brook (who had just starred in Bunuel’s Simon of the Desert) and American actor Mike Marshall (who would later play space ranger Colonel Scott in Moonraker) as Canadian Alan. When they jump from their blazing jet over Paris, Peter’s parachute lands him on the scaffolding of decorator Augustin (Bourvil) while Alan lands on the roof of the Opera, where Stanislaus (de Funes) is trying to conduct a rehearsal. Squadron Leader Reginald (Terry-Thomas) parachutes into the seal pool of the Zoo.

Claudio Brook and Mike Marshall

The three have arranged to meet at the Turkish Baths in the Mosque and both Bourvile and De Funes separately agree to go in place of the British airmen. This gives rise to the first of a couple of surprisingly risque set-pieces as the naked Frenchmen cruise through the steamy bath, whistling the signal of Tea For Two, trying to identify which of the affronted men they come across is ‘Big Moustache’.

As a contemporary review (or the pressbook puts it), “Bourvil and Louis de Funes are famous French comedians who are continually trying to get one up on each other. The comedy ranges from understatement to slapstick and farce, and is mainly visual. Each incident is built up so that the anticipation of the joke increases its effect.” Louis de Funes has an energetic range of tics and reactions – in an early scene in his dressing room he puts the wig he’s been wearing while conducting on a head block. When he stabs the wig with a knife to keep it secure he feels a jab in his head – and disbelievingly keeps stabbing the block, hurting himself more. Bourvil is more innocent – visually and in manner he comes across like a Yorkshireman – the contrast between the middle class and working man is underlined in an iconic scene where de Funes has to sit on Bourvil’s shoulders because he’s too short to climb over a wall.

Once he’s over the wall, Bourvil asks him to get down, but with an elated smirk de Funes’ says he’s fine, rapping with his fist on Bourvil’s helmet to get him to change direction.

The pursuing German forces include Hans Meyer (later to star in the Colditz TV series) and are led by the increasingly frustrated Benno Sterzenbach as Major Achbach. Sterzenbach does a fine slow burn as he tries to interrogate the babbling de Funes and Bourvil, but eventually leads his forces into Keystone Kops level slapstick. Oury pulls all the strands together with support from cinematographer Claude Renoir and composer Georges Auric (Passport to Pimlico, The Titfield Thunderbolt).

17 million Frenchmen can’t be wrong – if you’ve not seen it La Grand Vadrouille is an undiscovered classic.

Has ‘The Brexiteers’ Jumped The Shark?

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, June 13, 2020 16:43:14

Many of us feared at the end of the last series of The Brexiteers that the writers had painted themselves into a corner, and the most recent episodes of the current series seem to bear that out.

While the overthrow of the Theresa May character satisfied many, it left the Brexit storyline unfulfilled. There was some dramatic irony in May being replaced as Prime Minister by the buffoonish Boris Johnson, but it would only have worked if that really was the last episode of the series.

The final shot of The Brexiteers series 2

The appeal of the May character was that power was an end in itself for her, and Brexit was the means of achieving it. Much of the entertainment in The Brexiteers came from seeing the Prime Minister twist and backtrack in the face of changing events.

The problem with her replacement is that the character is, in many ways a carbon copy. While the actor brings a buffoonish charm and method-school inarticulacy to the role, it can’t disguise the fact that there’s little going on, either inside the character’s head or during the Brexit negotiations.

Faced with a deadline to deliver a third series of The Brexiteers, the producers took the bold step of veering off into science fiction territory. Having primed the audience in pre-publicity by saying Johnson was based on the Mayor from Jaws, they introduced the pandemic storyline, which took the series in a whole new direction. While the storyline is dramatic, it’s far from the original intent of the series. Brexit negotiations are now reduced to occasional Monty Python style interludes with the negotiators hurling insults at each other across Zoom screens.

The problem for the producers is that, having taken the series in this sensational direction, it’s going to be very difficult to get back on track. The bold step of effectively side-lining the Prime Minister, keeping him the background while a succession of minor characters take the lead has helped to disguise the lack of story development. At the same time it leaves a vacuum where we should be seeing confrontation with the dashing new opposition leader Keir Starmer. But the problem facing the producers is that having altered the internal reality of the series to a science fiction melodrama, it will be very difficult to steer the storyline back to the original political drama.

Evidence of this is shown by the introduction of street protests and riots just as the pandemic storyline begins to get boring. It’s unfortunate that these episodes were screened at the same time that Talking Pictures TV was repeating the 1970’s Quatermass. The scenes of warning gangs and ‘Planet People’ blindly marching towards intergalactic doom seem strangely similar to the protest scenes in The Brexiteers with the marchers seemingly convinced their good intentions will protect them from the virus.

The big question is – what will the producers pull out of their hats? Are the protests engineered to provide a willing stock of guinea pigs to test whether ‘herd immunity’ has taken effect? Is it really a plot to eradicate the radical left to ensure a more compliant population remains for the economic recovery? Or will it just turn out that there is no conspiracy? That no-one is in control and no-one really knows what they are doing? At the rate the producers have been going, anything could be revealed.

Mr Rose (1968) – Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, May 24, 2020 18:09:07
Nicholas Ball, William Mervyn: “You are the future of TV detection, I perceive

Free and Easy – the 5 December 1968 episode of Granada TV’s Mr Rose would prove to be the final outing for the TV detective who had appeared in three separate series (The Odd Man, It’s Dark Outside and Mr Rose ) since 1963.

With an odd – almost breaking the fourth wall – structure , the episode written by Jack Russell (The Devil’s Crown) sees Rose using his full array of psychological tricks against a theatrical adversary.

William Simons and Derek Newark

Hindsight lends the episode even more significance since the cast boasts a number of future TV lawmen – Nicholas Ball (Hazell, Thief Takers) as a young soldier, Peter Childs (Ron Gash in Public Eye and Rycott in Minder) as another guardsman, William Simons (Constable Thackery in Cribb, and Sgt Ventriss in Heartbeat) as the pub landlord, and guest star Derek Newark (DI Eddie Tucker in Barlow). In addition, Michael Elwyn, who plays the MOD investigator Seaford-Smith, later played Detective Chief Inspector Simpson in Sam Saturday (1992) and recently played Judge Rivlin in QUIZ, the 2020 Who Wants To Be A Millionaire docudrama.

William Mervyn was also playing Bishop Cuthbert Hever in the BBC comedy All Gas and Gaiters (which made its debut only 3 weeks before the first episode of Mr Rose) so it may not have come as too much of a wrench for Mervyn to bid farewell to Rose. The episode opens with Rose being gunned down, only for us to learn that it’s actually an actor – Marcus Despard, in a stage play based on Rose’s career. When Rose points out that it didn’t actually happen like that – the criminal shot himself and Rose is still alive – the director (David Graham) retorts that the contract gives him the right to change the story and he prefers it to end with Rose being killed.

Derek Newark and William Mervyn: Is it real or is it Memorex?

The outraged Rose discovers that Despard and his co-star (Derek Newark) are mixed up with a revolutionary group called Free and Easy and have been buying rounds for Guardsmen from the local barracks with the aim of winning support for their plot. This is an excuse for Rose to don a hairpiece and impersonate Despard, while his assistant Robert Trent (Eric Woofe) helps Despard to get into the character of Rose. As Mervyn often seemed to play the same pompous but benevolent character in most of his parts, it’s instructive to watch him slip into the coarser guise of Despard – almost as if he’s reminding the viewers he is just as actor.*

Despard is also being investigated by two rival rival civil servants (David Savile and Michael Elwyn) – each suffering from budget cuts. One section has a radio that can only transmit, not receive, while the other has to wait for their investigators to call in from a phone box. They assume that Trent’s name is an alias (based on the novel Trent’s Last Case) and get confused as to whether Rose is Despard or Despard is Rose. During one scene, Mr Rose is being quizzed by Savile and the conversation intimates that Free and Easy plan to assassinate the Prime Minister – with a photo of Harold Wilson being held up as an illustration. Coming only months after Cecil King’s abortive attempt to gain support from army officers and Royals for a coup against the Labour Government, it’s questionable if the noticeably TV-savvy Wilson saw this episode. Wilson is often said to have become paranoid towards the end of his Government but as the saying goes; “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

Rosemary Dunham

One final notable aspect of this episode is the casting of Rosemary Dunham as actress Marsha Tott. Ms Dunham is immortal as Michael Caine’s landlady in Get Carter (1971) and if you think she can generate sexuality in a rocking chair you should see what she can do outlining a meal to Robert Trent before she gives him an autograph, “On the small of your back!”

The story ends in a circular fashion with the opening re-enacted. Rose has discovered that Despard is a former colonial Policeman, made redundant in budget cuts. Is there a reference to the series cancellation here? The episode ends with Mr Rose looking down at the body of the redundant Despard saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” A reference to All Gas And Gaiters perhaps?

*Strangely enough, William Mervyn was always known as “Mr Rose” in our house although I only have memories of watching All Gas And Gaiters. Looking at the schedules, the BBC tended to put event programming such as boxing and Miss World up against the first series of Mr Rose and the anthology series Detective up against the second. The final series – shifted to Thursday nights – was up against Softly Softly and Sportsnight – so I can’t see any reason why we wouldn’t have watched Mr Rose but certainly came to each episode without the slightest glimmer of recognition.

Murder She Cooked – Mark Rolston’s ‘Red-Eye Eggs Benedict’

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, May 16, 2020 18:24:00

Following on from Ian Ogilvy’s Witchfinder General themed Turnip and Onion Soup, I’m returning to Silver Screen Suppers’ ongoing Murder She Cooked project in search of further lockdown diversion. This time it’s ‘Red Eye Eggs Benedict’ – this one associated with Mark Rolston of Aliens (above) who appeared in four Irish-themed episodes of Murder She Wrote including two as Sergeant Boyle of the Garda. Mark recently appeared in a March 2020 episode of Hawaii 5-0 with the catchy title I ho’olulu, ho’ohulei ‘ia e ka makani , so you could accompany this with a glass of Pineapple juice (or does that MAD running joke just apply to the 1970’s series?).

Eggs Benedict on Malted Milk

Scanning the recipe to get the ingredients together, the first surprise was that it called for “8 large biscuits”, halved and toasted! Biscuits? Some quick research revealed that this is a type of bread popular in the American south. They’re sourdough items similar to a scone but made with buttermilk. Recipes are available, so you could bake your own. Or use scones? But I settled for some sourdough bread with the crusts cut off. Slipped them in the toaster and then set them aside.

Once again, in the interests of social distancing and masking, I tried this recipe in the guise of Dr Syn – Alias The Scarecrow

Just keep the gas flame low

The Dr Syn analogy is apt. Like The Scarecrow waiting to lead his band of smugglers on a raid you need to ensure the quick, co-ordinated accomplishment of several acts in co-ordination. Of course, there has to be a twist to provide that note of potential danger, and this recipe delivers the complication of the ‘Red Eye Sauce’. It also makes sense to read the recipe closely, and – if you’re downsizing from four servings to two – make sure you write your downsizing calculations down right.

As insubstantial and unengaging as a politicians promise

In my first attempt to make the Hollandaise Sauce, I neglected the instruction to reduce the pepper, vinegar, water mix down before adding the egg yolk and water. I also got my quantities of water wrong, and then added the butter cold instead of melting it beforehand. So there I was, whipping and whisking and whirling, spattering liquid over the cooker and erupting into the flames and naturally it refused to thicken. It remained as insubstantial and unengaging as a party Political Broadcast.

As thick and buttery as a politician

In a guttural Patrick McGoohan voice, I gave the order to abandon the first attempt! Back to the recipe with my merry band of cutthroats! I made sure I actually understood what it was telling me to do. I set the butter to melt in a separate pan and got my calculations right. I took care to reduce the pepper, vinegar and water til it was just covering the pan and then added the egg yolk. Even as I whisked, with less liquid in the pan it quickly became clear what the recipe meant about pulling it away from the heat if the egg was in danger of scrambling. I poured in the melted butter and kept whisking. Within seconds it was ready. I’ve only ever had healthy, light Holland Sauce out of a jar before, and the white pepper gave this sauce more of a buzz, with the egg yolk and butter rendering a more decadent texture, as thick and oleaginous as a politician.

Somebody send for Colt Seavers !

At this stage, I have to admit that while I followed the full recipe for the close-up shots, I brought in my stuntman, in the form of Marks and Spencer Hollandaise sauce for the wide shots. Emptying the shop-bought Hollandaise into a saucepan, I fried the ‘Country-Smoked Ham Steaks’ – or Marks and Spencer Traditional Smoked Gammon Steaks and then “trimmed them into rounds”. Or knifed them into shapes roughly approximating the toasted bread.

And you have to save the grease afterwards!
It’s getting tense in the kitchen!

At this point the recipe calls for the creation of the ‘Red Eye Sauce’ – a tablespoon of butter and a quarter of a cup of cold coffee added to the grease left in the frying pan and then reduced for a few minutes over a medium heat. Meanwhile, “poach the eggs in the boiling water and vinegar” or use your trusty K-Tel Poach Pan cheat (“Never be embarrassed again by your poached eggs! Your family will be amazed by the cavalcade of poached egg dishes you produce with the accompanying recipe cards!”)

And here is where the magic coincides. Lay the Ham and Eggs on the “biscuits” and then cover them with the Hollandaise Sauce to which you have added the “Red Eye Sauce”. The bitter-butter taste of the smoked-fat and coffee liquor adds a tasty kick to shop bought Hollandaise and will doubtless send Mark Rolston’s peppery Hollandaise into the realms of artery tickling Nirvana.

Did you ever fall in love with someone you shouldn’t’ve?

I make no claims for the prettiness of the photo – it’s the Lee Marvin of food photography – it’s that girl your mother always told you to steer clear of. And I make no claims for having done anything more than follow what the recipe clearly told me to do. But that is a magnificent Eggs Benedict. The original recipe suggests garnishing with half a jalapeno pepper – but I’d say no – in the current crisis you don’t want to go raising your body temperature!

Project X (1967)

Uncategorised Posted on Fri, April 17, 2020 22:05:52
Project X – £9.99

William Castle’s Project X (1967) – out on Blu Ray from 101 Films – is like a fugitive from a frustrating dream where you go into the past and discover a book or comic that never really existed. If I’d ever heard of horror maestro William Castle directing a science fiction movie (1), it had never registered, so that enhances the feeling of coming across something from a parallel world!

The movie itself has the structure of a dream where the narrative suddenly shifts in strange unexpected ways. Christopher George (Grizzly, The Rat Patrol) plays 22nd Century geneticist Hagan Arnold who is sent on a secret spy mission to “Sino-Asia”. He discovers a secret that will destroy America but his memory is wiped by an anti-interrogation drug injected before the mission by his own side. American scientists seek to recover his memory by an elaborate process which involves convincing him that he’s a bank robber in 1960’s America.

When I read the precis on the back of the Blu Ray, I assumed this would be a cheap way filming a lot of the movie on 1960’s city streets. But surprisingly this action takes place in a reproduction of a remote farmhouse flung together by the 22nd Century military. It’s almost like Mission: Impossible with the main cast of scientists assuming false identities. The casting of actors like Philip Pine and Henry Jones who regularly guest-starred in 1960’s TV shows and Van Cleave’s spot-on jazzy score during this sequence heightens the resemblance to a Quinn Martin production. *

*Christopher George himself would later star in the Quinn Martin TV movie The House on Greenapple Road (1970). The subsequent series, Dan August saw Burt Reynolds take the leadGeorge was already starring in The Immortal (1970-71).

When the amnesiac George sleeps, scientist Henry Jones uses a mind-scanning process to creates holograms reproducing what is known of George’s mission in the hope that his sub-conscious will then reveal what is unknown. This leads to the most incredible development of the whole film. It’s almost as if William Castle actually journeyed forward into the 21st Century and saw a modern day thriller with all the computer generated stunts and special effects! And on returning to the 1960’s, he did his best to recreate what he’d seen by commissioning Hanna Barbera to animate the dream sequences. George and other actors are superimposed over cartoon sequences designed by Carl Urbano and Alex Toth (at least some of which are retreads from the Jonny Quest TV show).

Scriptwriter Edmund Morris (another TV veteran) effectively reverses the plot of Leslie P. Davies’ novel The Artificial Man (1965). In the book, the hero is a science fiction writer living in a 1960’s village. Friends and neighbours keep making remarks which inspire the development of a novel he is writing about life in a dictatorship in 2016. After he meets a girl from the village who believes she is living in 2016, the author gradually realises that he’s a secret agent who has lost his memory. It really is 2016 and his life as a writer has been part of a plot to recover the secrets held in his lost memory. There are obvious overtones of the 1967 TV series The Prisoner and it’s intriguing that Castle and North chose to give the big revelation right at the start of the movie – as if they wanted to make sure they didn’t confuse anyone.

We only get vague hints of what the world of the future is like – women are designated as sterile or breeders, and nobody knows what a potato is. There’s an implication of the dictatorship of Davies’ novel, but since most of the action takes place in a top secret military project it’s hard to be certain. Harold Gould plays the Colonel in charge of the operation, constantly in opposition to Jones and Pine as the scientists. There’s a slight hint of Waiting for Godot watching actors who usually play supporting roles taking the lead – you’re constantly waiting for the big star to turn up – but with even George laying comatose or addled for much of the movie, it’s Jones and Gould who dominate. There’s a darkly amusing scene at one point when it’s feared that the project has been exposed to a plague – and Jones calmly lays out to a horrified Gould how they’ll have to quarantine the base as the infection spreads , with each new victim cremated by the survivors. Jones delivers this speech with a methodical slyness, so we’re never quite sure if he’s already thought of the loophole that’s going to save them.

The second source for the movie is Davies’ novel The Psychogeist, which has similar themes of amnesia, a man recalling a childhood comic which may actually be memories of life on an alien planet, and a top secret project. When scientist Jones comments during one scene that, “What we see in the mirror and what the mind sees filtered through our ego is quite another thing.” he seems to be stating the main theme of Davies’ work.

Monte Markham: “I am the Master, you will..” (Oops, wrong show)

It’s possible that The Psychogeist inspired the character of Gregory Gallea, the mysterious figure played by Monte Markham (star of The Second Hundred Years TV series – later to be the Seven Million Dollar Man rival of The Six Million Dollar Man). Markham wears an Ed Bishop catsuit and a Roger Delgado beard so he looks like a futuristic villain, but plays Gallea with a convincing ambiguity, so we’re never quite sure of his connection with George and the mysterious disembodied entity that manifests itself in the project (2). Picking up a plot strand from The Artificial Man, George’s character has met a girl from the village (Greta Baldwin) who is unaware of the deception. When she’s arrested by the military, Markham tries to enlist her aid in busting George out of the project. Once again, just when you think you know what direction the movie’s going in, Castle veers off in another direction.

As a piece of science fiction, Project X often looks outdated, and as a work made for hire it looks cheap – especially in comparison to some of the other movies coming out at the time. But it has a kind of mad charm and beneath the surface there are a number of interesting concepts, not just as science fiction but in relation to other films (3)

(1) In fact, Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story (2007) on the Indicator 13 Ghosts Blu Ray, does mention Project X as a project handed to Castle by the studio before Rosemary’s Baby but released as an anti-climactic follow-up to the success of the Ira Levin adaptation.

The 101 Films Blu Ray of Project X comes with a commentary by Allan Bryce and David Flint and a new documentary, Money Back Guarantee in which commentators such as Vic Pratt (above) of the BFI relate William Castle’s career in ballyhoo. It’s obviously cut price in comparison to the documentaries on the recent Indicator box set, but then cut price is well in the spirit of Castle and Project X – and it still manages to be entertaining and informative.

(2) SPOILER – Gallea is the villain, albeit one with a convincing motivation. One could only wish the next actor to play The Master on Doctor Who could be given a Ludovico Treatment and sat in front of Markham’s performance as Gallea so they can see there is another way to play a villain without going full Jack Nicholson/Johnny Depp.

(3) SPOILER *** The movie ends with Henry Jones telling Greta Baldwin that George has been given a new identity and new memories as an engineer. Baldwin is informed that she also has a new identity and that she was officially married to George three days ago. George affects a particular vacuousness in his new identity and as they depart hand-in-hand it’s hard to dispel memories of Arnold Shwarzenegger and Sharon Stone in Total Recall.

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!

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