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Superman – The Movie Phantom Zone

Rant Posted on Sun, July 21, 2019 19:02:11

There are so many superhero movies out there now that it’s sometimes hard to recall how sparse superhero movies used to be – and how inevitably disappointing most of them turned out. Even Superman – The Movie (1978) seemed off register at the time.
The film represented a Superman at least 10 years out of date – Clark Kent working for the Daily Planet, Lois Lane trying to uncover his identity and Lex Luthor as the main villain. Not just Luthor, but a humorous Luthor seemingly influenced by the Batman TV show. In the comics, Superman had moved forward. The Daily Planet was now owned by the Galaxy Broadcasting System whose duplicitous CEO, Morgan Edge conscripted Clark and Lois into reporting for his TV news shows. Scripts had become more ingenious.
Even when Superman – The Movie and its sequel Superman II related old-established lore such as the Phantom Zone villains, they seemed to do it in an odd mixed-up way. In the comic books, Kryptonian criminals were condemned to the Phantom Zone by a ray projector . Once inside the misty realm, the criminals became ghost-like and insubstantial, needing no food or mortal comforts. In the movies, the Phantom Zone was a whirling mirror that swooped down out of the skies and somehow absorbed the villains. It didn’t seem to make much sense. However, having recently got hold of a collection of Tales from the Phantom Zone – I’ve finally understood where the movie makers were coming from.
Superman – The Movie opens with General Zod (Terence Stamp), Non (Jack O’Halloran) and Ursa (Sarah Douglas) being condemned to the Phantom Zone at a trial in which their prosecutor Jor-El (Marlon Brando) has the casting vote. Superman II shows the Phantom Zone being shattered by an exploding bomb (or a missile in the Richard Donner cut). The Kryptonian villains realise that Earth’s yellow sun gives them super powers and quickly proceed to take over the Earth. Again, none of this seemed to make sense because in the comics the Phantom Zone wasn’t a physical prison that could be broken open.

The Phantom Zone first appeared in a Superboy story written in 1960 by Robert Bernstein. A sealed container falls to Earth and Superboy decodes the warning, signed by his own father Jor-El that they contain Krypton’s deadliest weapons. Despite the warning, Superboy opens the casket and finds a “thought helmet” which instructs him on the use of the Phantom Zone projector.

Superboy is accidentally projected into the Phantom Zone when a pesky lizard touches the ‘on’ button and spends the rest of the story as a living ghost until he figures a way to reverse the process. Superboy doesn’t encounter the rest of the Phantom Zone villains although the helmet does introduce the character of General Zod who is condemned to the Phantom Zone for trying to use an army of clones to take over Krypton.
However, the main inspiration for the Phantom Zone villains of the 1970’s movie, comes from a 1963 Superboy strip scripted by veteran science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton. The Untold Story of the Phantom Zone .
The story opens on Krypton with a crazed scientist called Gra-Mo trying to seize control of the planet using the robot police. His rival Jor-El foils the coup by using a magnetised weather satellite to capture the robot police. Because the Phantom Zone projector has been damaged by the magnetism, Gra-Mo and his associates are placed in suspended animation and exiled in a rocket ship.
Decades later, the prison ship has drifted towards Earth and a glancing blow from a meteor sends it crashing onto the planet’s surface. This is effectively the inspiration for the “Phantom Zone” being smashed open in the movies.
Gra-Mo tells his colleagues that they’re on Earth. “We monitored this world a thousand times from Krypton with our space telescopes and radios. Why we can even speak the English language.” This contrasts with Superman II where Zod and Ursa think they are on the planet “Houston” and know nothing of Earth (although they too speak very good English).
Gra-Mo also anticipates the deductions General Zod makes in Superman II “According to our scientists, if Kryptonians went to a world energised by a yellow sun, instead of our red sun, they’d have super powers!”

In the comic, Superboy arrives and is duped by the super villains. Ironically, when Gra-Mo tells Superboy he was an old friend of Jor-El’s, the Boy of Steel believes him because he knows “all Krypton’s villains are in the Phantom Zone”. When Gra-Mo invents a telepathic helmet to contact the Phantom Zone prisoners, they advise him how to attack Superboy. Eventually Superboy realises the Kryptonians are villains but is powerless to stop them as they embark on a campaign of vandalism similar to that of Zod and his cohorts.
In Superman II Lex Luthor leads Zod and his comrades to the Fortress of Solitude where they confront Superman. In the comic book story, Gra-Mo outwits every move Superboy makes. When he sends a lump of Kryptonite towards them, Gra-Mo jeers that the Phantom Zone villains have told him how to create a serum which gives him temporary immunity to Kryptonite.

In the movie, Superman is also in an impossible position. When Zod tells Non they will kill Luthor, Superman seizes his chance, whispering to Luthor that they must trick Zod into entering a chamber which will rob him of his super powers. Luthor immediately tells Zod what Superman is planning, and they force the Man of Steel to enter the chamber. What they don’t realise is that Superman has reversed the polarity (or whatever) and every Kryptonian outside the chamber is robbed of their super powers. Superman knocks the villains off the ice terraces of the Fortress of Solitude and as the fall towards the snow they fade away!
Back in the comic-book, Superboy has hidden the Phantom Zone projector inside Gra-Mo’s prison ship. The Phantom Zone villains, desperate to escape, tell Gra-Mo what Superboy has done. But when they enter the ship, they find out that the Phantom Zone projector is a cardboard model. Superboy seals up the ship and covers it in paint which blocks the rays of Earth’s yellow sun.
Robbed of their powers, Gra-Mo and his comrades are helpless as Superboy fires the Phantom Zone projector, which sends them into the misty realm inhabited by the other Kryptonian villains.

Superman II is a more entertaining film than Superman – The Movie but the plot flaws hanging over from the first movie were always annoying. Reading the comic book stories that formed the background for Zod, Ursa and Non, makes the apparent illogicality easier to accept.

I hadn’t realised, until I started researching this article, that there is now a controversy about whether Superman and Lois killed Zod and Ursa and that some viewers insist Zod died at the end of Superman II. I have to admit is never occurred to me that Superman had killed Zod. That strange fade before Zod hits the ice or snow or whatever it is at the bottom of the Fortress of Solitude suggests they didn’t want to show that. But again, having seen the comic book story which inspired that sequence, it’s pretty clear that Superman (or Superboy) would have sent them back to the Phantom Zone.
The ‘Richard Donner Cut’ DVD (2006) includes deleted scenes from the end of the movie which show a ‘US Arctic Patrol’ taking Zod, Non and Ursa into custody. This is all in long-shot because it’s the background to Gene Hackman’s final scene but the implication seems pretty clear.
If Richard Donner had returned to shoot the remaining scenes for Superman II it’s probable that he would have shot some close-ups of the Kryptonian villains to make it clear. But Donner was replaced by Richard Lester and the ending was re-written. Perhaps Lester thought the villains ‘fading away’ into the snow was the sort of thing that happened in comic books. After all, we’d just seen Superman deploy the incomprehensible tactic of throwing the ‘S’ symbol from his chest at Non.

Moonshot Memories: 18 July 1969 – The Gold Robbers

Rant Posted on Wed, July 17, 2019 08:24:54

As the Apollo 11 crew continued their journey to Moon orbit , ITV screened the seventh episode of London Weekend Television’s serial The Gold Robbers at 9pm on Friday 18th July 1969.
Continuing the ongoing format of the show, An Oddly Honest Man by former Plane Makers script associate David Weir, opened with the standard sequence of the armed attack on a plane delivering gold bullion to an airport. It then branched off to show the van full of gold being loaded onto a Bristol air freighter piloted by this week’s guest star Ian Hendry.
Picking up the trail, Inspector Craddock (Peter Vaughan) checks a list of every Bristol airfreighter in the country on the day of the robbery and narrows their whereabouts down to one plane which was supposedly sitting in an airfield in Beek, Holland, waiting for a contract to be signed by the Nigerian owners. Craddock establishes that the plane was in the air on the day of the robbery and the broker (Christopher Benjamin) tells him he let a friend, Tom Goodwin (Hendry), take the plane for a test flight as the plane had not been officially sold at that point.
Goodwin, a former mercenary pilot, has been imprisoned in South America on unspecified charges. Records show that when he returned to England, a month before the robbery, he declared £30,000 cash to Customs. Since he was not required to show the cash, Craddock suspects he was establishing an alibi for his payment from the robbery. Goodwin has married his girlfriend Dee (Wanda Ventham – two years before their pairing in the BBC’s The Lotus Eaters)and bought a riverside hotel to give them a solid future.

A series of point of view shots of the broker, Goodwin and Goodwin’s accountant shows them answering Craddock’s questions, proving he is unable to break down Goodwin’s alibi. The relentless Craddock gambles that, as a pilot Goodwin has always been up in the air, divorced from the consequences of whatever he’s been involved with. He goes to the hotel and confronts Tom and Dee with the face mask used by one of the robbers when they squirted ammonia in the faces of the guards and coshed them. “Look – you can still see the policeman’s blood there…he’s blind in one eye..”

Craddock tells Dee that he likes Goodwin, but eventually he’ll nail him. And he’ll no longer be the man he was. “After ten years in jail – courage, dignity, personality. Everything goes.” His only chance is to confess for a lighter sentence.

With Goodwin determined to stick to his alibi, Dee packs her bags and leaves. She can’t face a life looking over her shoulder waiting for Craddock to strike. “I don’t want it like this. I still love you..but I can’t live without hope. With nothing to look forward to.”

As Craddock returns to the hotel, he sees Dee stood at the bus stop with her suitcases. He finds Goodwin sitting at the bar. Director Bill Bain allows 23 seconds to elapse before Craddock says, “Hello Tom”. Hendry walks to the bar, gets a bottle and pours Craddock a drink. Another 1 minute 40 seconds elapses before Hendry says, “Must be a frustrating business, being a copper.” Craddock agrees: “I’ll get that pilot in the end, though.”

The titles roll as Craddock and Hendry sit drinking in silence. Another tightly scripted episode by David Weir balancing the procedural detail as Craddock zeroes in on his man, with Goodwin’s doomed attempts to make Dee’s dream of a riverside hotel into a reality. Director Bill Bain makes good use of point of view shots to heighten the atmosphere – when Craddock first goes to interview Goodwin, for instance, the idyllic shot of Hendry and Ventham looking over the river is overlaid with the crunch of Craddock’s footsteps on the gravel. They turn to look towards the camera, and the apprehension grows on Hendry’s face as the camera lurches towards him.

Read about The Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry by Gabriel Hershman

Official Ian Hendry Tribute Site

Moonshots, Main Chance & Resurrection 16 July 1969

Rant Posted on Tue, July 16, 2019 09:20:43

16 July 1969 the eyes of the world were on Cape Kennedy . BBC1 and BBC2 covered APOLLO 11 from 1.50 pm with Cliff Michelmore, James Burke and Patrick Moore, while ITN ran MAN ON THE MOON from 2.10 pm with Peter Fairley.

There were updates throughout the day, but once Apollo 11 had launched successfully, TV returned to a semi-standard schedule with Alex Glasgow telling Tales of Northumbria in Jackanory on BBC1 and Freewheelers pitting Ronald Leigh Hunt’s Colonel Buchan against Geoffrey Toone’s Von Gelb on ITV (notwithstanding the irony of a former Nazi threatening the modern world on children’s TV, while former Nazi Wernher Von Braun had played such a pivotal part in the success of Apollo 11 ).
At 9pm ITV screened Yorkshire TV’s The Main Chance. In, Privilege of Justice by Edmund Ward, Solicitor David Main (John Stride) is offered a contract to negotiate the release of Raul Ramira (John Bennett), a political prisoner in Castro’s Cuba. Raul’s family escaped to Switzerland, while Ramira stayed with Castro to fight a guerrilla war against Batista. Ramira served under Castro’s government as a justice minister, but was then charged with “counter-revolutionary activities” and sentenced to hard labour in a prison camp. Now his family are offering to any “fine” that Main can negotiate if Raul’s sentence can be commuted.
Main arrives in Cuba and gradually realises he is a prisoner under surveillance, unable to leave the top floor of his luxury hotel or communicate with the outside world. He is visited by Montero (Alan Browning) the new Minister of Justice. He was an informer in Batista’s police force who clearly resents Ramira (“no sleeping under the stars for me. When they came for me, there was nowhere to run”). Main criticises the current regime that enforces its rule with guns, and takes the possessions of anyone who wants to leave and sentences them to two years labouring in a cane field waiting for a plane out.

Montero responds that Cuba under Batista was, “the brothel of the hemisphere. You could buy children’s flesh cheaper than you could buy tobacco. You could watch the tourist boats pouring in from Miami. Fat men with fat wallets.”
Montero removes his glove and shows him his battered hand without nails. “This is the price I paid for freedom and justice, Mr Main. How much did you pay?”
Back in Leeds, Margaret Castleton (Margaret Ashcroft)is carrying out the bread-and-butter work of the solicitors practice, defending a housewife charged with theft. Mrs Cooper has sold the TV, bought on Hire Purchase, to pay off other debts. She has told her husband that the TV is in repairs, frightened that he will hit her if she admits she can’t budget on what he pays her. Margaret has to explain that Mrs cooper is being charged under the theft act because under Hire Purchase the goods don’t belong to you until you’ve paid off the whole of the debt. Mrs Cooper fails to turn up at court and the magistrates order her arrest. Margaret confronts Mr Cooper, who says his wife should have told him: “Maybe I would have clouted her – but I wouldn’t have meant any harm!” He says she should have been able to manage on what he gave her – other women do. When Margaret asks if he knew she was on tranquilisers, he replies, “She was always in and out of the doctors – it gives her something to do.” Margaret tells him he’s lucky – “The last case like this, the women left the children with a neighbour and killed herself.”
In Cuba, Raul Ramira is brought to Main’s hotel suite. He says he fought for the revolution but disapproves of the results. “I did not fight for the rabid mouthings of men whose paranoia has brought the country to the brink of starvation.” As Ramira and Montero argue, Main says he has the funds to pay any fine if Ramira’s sentence can be commuted. He has a bankers draft for $200,000 that requires two signatures – his and Ramira’s. Ramira says he will refuse to sign, “All I can do is take the one last freedom that every man has – the freedom to die on his own terms.”

Montero tells Main that Ramira has chosen suicide. “To die is easy. To live and work is the hard part. Every day to push belief a fraction forward. to go without the heroic gesture.”
“Forget Ramira’s signature.” Montero tells Main, “Go to Mexico city. Authorise payment as soon as you hear that Ramira has safely been put on a plane. Freedom or a death warrant. You decide.”

At 10:30 pm on BBC2 Alan Dobie starred in the second part of Resurrection Alexander Baron’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s final novel. Dobie plays Prince Dmitri, who is shocked to recognise the accused in a murder trial as a servant he once seduced. Maslova, played by Bridget Turner lost her job when she became pregnant by Dmitri and drifted into prostitution. Now she is accused of poisoning an abusive client. Dmitri tries to intervene to rescue Maslova.

Soylent Green (1973)

Rant Posted on Thu, July 11, 2019 00:18:09

SOYLENT GREEN is the 1973 adaptation of Harry Harrison’s prophetic novel of overpopulation, ‘Make Room! Make Room!’
If Twitter had been around in 1973, the film would probably have been slaughtered. Even in the analogue era, the film developed a bad reputation among science fiction fans because Harry Harrison ridiculed the changes the movie made to his novel .

Penguin’s tie-in cover (above) does a good job of selling the novel as a 1984 style tale of star-crossed lovers against a backdrop of overpopulation. But Harrison’s novel is set in an overpopulated New York of 1999. Detective Andy Rusch is investigating the murder of gangster ‘Big Mike’. The readers know it’s actually a bungled robbery, but because Big Mike’s fellow gangsters fear it was a rival mob hit, Andy is given all the time he needs to make a thorough investigation. Andy falls in love with Shirl, Big Mike’s mistress. They spend a short idyllic time sharing Big Mike’s food and air conditioning before the rent is up. Then Andy has to move Shirl into the apartment he shares with Sol, an ex-engineer who has rigged up a bike to power the lights and TV in the apartment.

Harrison depicts a world in which everything is falling apart – petrol, water and food is scarce – the ever-expanding population subsists on Soylent – a Soya and Lentil substitute. When a store gets hold of some rare beef steaks it starts a riot as the New Yorkers sight over the rare luxury. When Sol dies after taking part in a protest in favour of birth control, an obnoxious family is moved into the apartment. Shirl abandons Rusch in search of the privileged life she once had as Big Mike’s mistress. Andy finally tracks down Big Mike’s killer, but is busted back to a uniformed beat as a result of departmental politics.
Richard Fleischer’s 1973 movie Soylent Green makes several changes, although most of these are for the better. The movie shifts the period forward to 2020 and ups the population of New York to 40 million. Charlton Heston plays detective Frank Thorn. As the title suggests – the food substitute is now central to the plot. ‘Big Mike’ becomes an executive of the Soylent Company, played by Joseph Cotten. Whereas the readers of Harrison’s novel know that Big Mike’s murder is an accident, the movie audience knows that Cotton’s murder is an assassination made to look like a robbery.
The screenplay is by Stanley R. Greenberg who developed a reputation for fact-based docudramas such as The Missiles of October but had also been involved with the 1967 ITC TV series Man In A Suitcase. Starring Richard Bradford as McGill a former CIA agent cast-out for a crime he didn’t commit and forced to exist as a modern-day bounty hunter, the series developed a reputation for being harder-edged than most ITC series. In Greenberg’s episodes, McGill operates on the edge of society. He sub-contracts work to small-time private eye’s and criminals. As played by Richard Bradford, he refuses to back down to threat, becoming progressively battered and broken-down as he faces off against the opposition.
Norman Rossington and Richard Bradford in Man In A Suitcase

Greenberg’s script for Soylent Green takes a similar approach. Thorn is literally a thorn in the side of the Soylent company, continuing to investigate the assassination they’ve crafted to look like a robbery gone wrong. Every change Greenberg makes serves to heighten the drama. Assassin Stephen Young (Seaway ) is steered towards Thorn, who continues to push his way towards uncovering the McGuffin – the big revelation about Soylent Green which so annoyed Harrison.

Society has been reduced to the utilitarian. Thorn appears to be on something like a short term contract – only employed as long as he continues to clear up New York’s increasing murder rate. Thorn is casually corrupt, helping himself to the drinks and food of the rich murder victim. Sol (Edward G. Robinson) is now a “book” – a forensic researcher assigned by the police to aid Thorn. Shirl (Leigh Taylor Young) is now “furniture” – one of a number of call girls offered by the high-scale apartment house to prospective tenants.
Sol in the novel appears to be the mouthpiece for Harrison, explaining the causes of over-population and its effect on society and dying from a virus caught while protesting in favour of birth control. As played by Edward G. Robinson in the movie, Sol is at the centre of the most affecting scenes. After his first visit to the scene of the murder, Thorn brings back some plunder he’s confiscated including an apple and a cut of meat. As Sol regards the priceless food items, he’s overcome with regret for the lost past.
Later on, when he pieces together the secret behind Soylent Green, Sol perceives why Cotten was consumed by remorse and accepted his own murder. Sol decides to ‘go home’, entering the church-like Euthanasia centre, where a cheery Dick Van Patten goes through a questionnaire asking Sol’s favourite colour and music. The answers provide an ambience to Sol’s final moments, having drunk a suicide brew.
Thorn pushes his way into a viewing chamber, where he sees the images of ‘home’ – films of the wide open spaces, vibrant oceans and abundant crops of the past played to comfort the dying. For the first time Thorn sees just what has been lost.
Soylent Green is arguably one of the first movies to deal with ‘global warming’. The street scenes are obscured by an optically printed smog. According to a behind-the-scenes report in Cinefantastique, the exteriors were filmed during a cold snap and underclad extras had to be sprayed with a glycerine mixture to simulate the dirt and sweat of a tropical heat. When Heston leaves his apartment at night, he has to manoeuvre his way past scores of extras sleeping on the stairs (an indication of the over-crowding mentioned directly in the source novel). The film’s New York setting tends to mask the fact that the whole world is in decay. Towards the end Thorn explains to Shirl that there is nowhere to run to. Crops have failed, animals have become extinct and even the plankton in the sea have been over-farmed. People queue for cut-price crumbs of Soylent while waiting for the scare rations of high protein Soylent Green to be delivered. The slightest delay in delivery triggers a riot in which protesters are scooped up and dumped into 21st century garbage trucks.
Ultimately, the film of Soylent Green remains pertinent because it is about scarcity of resources. Whatever the cause of the situation it depicts a world in which humans are reduced to commodities – ‘Books’ – ‘Furniture’ – and only the 1% prosper. The ultimate revelation (SPOILER) – the one which offended Harry Harrison so much – is that the source of the Soylent Green has failed and the company has begun reprocessing human bodies from the euthanasia centres. As resources become even more scarce, society begins to eat itself!

50 Years of James Burke

Rant Posted on Sun, July 07, 2019 15:22:33

The future is just a past that hasn’t happened yet. And the past is all too dependent on our memories. Nothing proves this more than the 6 July 2019 issue of Radio Times , which carries two articles by James Burke in his inimitable* style. The first recalls the excitement of the moonshot in July 1969. The second is a reprint of the 1969 Radio Times in which Burke looks forward to covering the Moonshot.

(*and yes, I proved it is inimitable by trying to imitate it there)

Burke puts the Moon Landing in context for those who weren’t born then (and those of us who have forgotten). “In 1969, Britain had towns full of smoke-blackened buildings, half the population had no TV or cars – or inside loos. We all lived with the awareness (buried deep in our brains) that any day might bring a nuclear attack.” More to the point, he makes it clear that the Moon Shot and its TV coverage didn’t go according to plan!Check out the reprint from 1969, and you’ll see James Burke from 50 years ago telling us that after touchdown, Armstrong and Aldrin would spend two hours checking the systems before swallowing sleeping pills. “Four hours later they wake, eat and at just after seven-twelve am on Monday July 21, Neil Armstrong goes down the ladder.”

With the benefit of hindsight, 2019 James Burke tells us it didn’t go that way. “I heard them doing stuff that indicated a change of plan (preparing their moon-walk suits and not rigging sleep hammocks), so it was time for a re-think and the first-ever BBC all-night TV. “One small step” happened for a UK audience of 22 million at 3.56 am.”

Those of us too young to stay up woke the next day to Neil Armstrong’s descent being played on a loop. There was a small sense of being cheated – why hadn’t they had the courtesy to wait for British breakfast time?

But the two articles by Burke remind us that just because something’s written down, it doesn’t mean it happened that way. The whole Moon Shot was planned to the second. But there was always a chance that something could change.

22 years later, James Burke brought out a book called Chances and I found that pretty life changing.

It’s basically a book of facts. Or a book of odds. Posed as questions about everyday life. Which dogs are more likely to bite? (Alsatians, Chow, Airedale and Pekinese) What are the chances I will die before my 25-year mortgage is paid off? (For a 30 year old male, 1 in 9). The blurb on the back tells us that, “Since 1981 AIDS has killed 500,000 people. In the same period 16,000,000 have died from measles…If you are likely to be shot, poisoned or strangled it will probably happen in December and there’s a 64 per cent chance you will know your murderer…but don’t worry…you are 14 times more likely to have killed yourself first!”

There is no index or bibliography, although there is an acknowledgement “to Helen O’Leary for her meticulous research.” But then it’s not that kind of book. It was published by Virgin Publishing (remember them?) and sold for £2.99. That sounds like a pittance now – it’s the equivalent of £6.30 today. I doubt you could buy a new paperback for that price today although that might be because a modern publisher would make the book bigger – with a larger, more spaced-out typeface – to push the page count and retail price up. Holding Chances you remember that paperbacks were once – like mobile phones – a piece of entertainment you could carry in your pocket.

So why do I call Chances life changing? James Burke says at the start that, “Life is a gamble….Forecasting the future is a matter of knowing the influences that determine the outcome (of your decisions).”

Flicking through the book in the WH Smiths on Paddington station back in 1992, I came across the following line: “Are trustful people more likely to enjoy good mental/emotional health than the mistrustful?” And the answer was: “Yes. A variety of studies show that trustful people, far from being the gullible, naïve types who are victimised by others, are actually…far better liked and have far fewer mental/emotional problems.”

And next to it was the question, “Are people who mistrust others more likely to be untrustworthy themselves/” And the answer was: “Yes. According to a number of studies, people who tend to be suspicious of others are themselves more likely to be cheats, manipulators and liars.”

As I said, £2.99 seemed like a lot of money back then, so I didn’t buy the book, although I certainly took the thought away with me.

I was a pretty negative person at the time – and while this wasn’t a ‘Road to Damascus’ it did start me thinking that there was a possibility the glass might be half full instead of half empty. Or that there might be some benefit in presuming that the glass was half full. So as much as anything could be deemed “life changing” this book was it. So thank you, James Burke. Long may you write.

Lost Dreams: Ian Hendry & Nicol Williamson

Rant Posted on Tue, May 28, 2019 20:15:50

I spent the weekend reading two books by Gabriel Hershman – Send In The Clowns: the Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry and Black Sheep: The Authorised Biography of Nicol Williamson. Two very different actors – Hendry, the household name – Williamson, the critically acclaimed stage star. Both disappointed in pursuit of lost dreams.
Both Hendry and Williamson intersected with the short career of Patrick Wymark; Hendry starred in three films ( Children of the Damned, Repulsion and Doppelganger) in which Wymark appeared, and Wymark took on the role of Claudius for the American tour of Williamson’s controversial Hamlet. All three exhibited the uncanny ability to drink to excess before delivering a stirring performance – at least in the short term.

Hershman relates the professional lives of Hendry and Williamson, attempting to identify not so much what went wrong with their careers, as what made them so fascinating. Hendry with a voice, “like a razor on sandpaper” and a vulnerability that set him aside from his contemporaries. Williamson, powerful and uncompromising, playing to “packed houses and ecstatic critics.”

Hendry is probably the better known, a regular face in film and TV of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Although as Hershman notes, he was often unlucky in his choices. Most of Hendry’s Avengers episodes have been wiped, as has his Rediffusion show The Informer. Although his BBC series The Lotus Eaters was well-regarded, it is relatively obscure. Many of his movies lacked proper promotion – Hendry and Williamson both appeared in The Jerusalem File (1972) which director John Flynn said, “didn’t do well at the box office and all but disappeared.” Williamson’s most prominent role is arguably that of Merlin in Excalibur (1981).

Both were distanced from their parents, Hendry by boarding school, Williamson by wartime evacuation. Both were early high achievers: Hendry one of the first 1960’s TV stars at 30 with a series (The Avengers ) created around him – Williamson starring as the self-destructive middle-aged lawyer of John Osborne’s Inadmissible Evidence when only 27.

Yet both seemed to hit an early glass ceiling. Hendry’s starring role in Live Now, Pay Later (1962) and Williamson’s lead in revenge drama The Reckoning (1968) failed to trigger consistent movie stardom. Concerns were raised about reliability. While Williamson’s idiosyncrasy was in some ways a theatrical event – walking off-stage in Hamlet because he was disappointed by his performance, or stopping to berate latecomers – it was a major concern to the ticking clock of movie-making. Hendry worked hard to lobby BBC producer Anthony Read for the star role in the BBC series The Lotus Eaters (1971) meeting for lunch to convince his old friend that he was having treatment for his drinking, and off the hard stuff for good. At the end of the meal they agreed to meet up at Hendry’s house for coffee – “Oh, and would (Read) mind stopping off on the way and picking up a bottle of brandy!”

Hershman takes a layered approach to the lives of both actors, describing both performance and personal life with equal weight. Williamson’s contempt for the public is balanced by his disdain for competitors. Former wife Jill Townsend relates how Williamson took it as a personal affront when she won a Best Newcomer award from the Evening Standard in 1975; “He went into one of his rages…If I accomplished anything in acting, it would be like taking something away from him.”

Yet the final act of Williamson’s life seems content: effectively retired from acting, living in Rhodes where he , “swam and drank a lot, and generally cultivated an air of an irascible eccentric,” making music with an ad hoc band.

Hendry too found solace in poetry and collaborating in song-writing, although a bankruptcy triggered by Inland Revenue demands meant that the tail-end of his career was less idyllic.

Nevertheless , Hershman draws vivid portraits of both actors at the peak of their careers, pinpointing that “something special” which attracted audience interest.

Send In The Clowns: The Yo Yo Life of Ian Hendry ISBN 978-1-291-27097-6

Black Sheep: The Authorised Biography of Nicol Williamson ISBN 978-0-7509-8345-7

Flipside: The Bodies Beneath

Rant Posted on Sat, May 25, 2019 18:16:25

The Bodies Beneath: The Flipside of British Film & Television by William Fowler and Vic Pratt. Strange Attractor Press.

Written by the originators of the British Film Institute’s Flipside Initiative, later immortalised as a series of DVD/BluRay sets, this 400 page book reviews the more obscureBritish cult movies and TV.

In their introduction, William Fowler and Vic Pratt question whether, “the original ‘cult’ films, as first celebrated by such pioneering film-writers as Danny Peary back in the 1980’s (have) more recently become art of the mainstream canon?” They go on to admit that The Bodies Beneath is, “part of our own personal mission to figure it all out in an enjoyable way, rather than allowing traditional cultural guardians or marketing departments to decide for us.”

Although segregated into thematic chapters, The Bodies Beneath is probably best read by starting at the index, to see what will catch your eye. Peter Falk: Page 42 – reflecting, “I have never played a scene with an actor who commanded my attention the way Pat(rick McGoohan) did.” Terry & June: Page 311 – Nigel Kneale’s Kinvig “more like a cross between Terry and June and Steptoe and Son” than( Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)“.

Perhaps predictably, the subject’s range from exploitation film-maker Andy Milligan to forgotten sex comedies like Under the Doctor (Barry Evans, who had left the Doctor in the House TV series allegedly made this film to finance a theatre company) (“the sex factor diminishes as the film goes on, like a drunkard’s member”). But unexpectedly, there’s a penetrating article on Sooty and the difference between the psychological depth of the Harry Corbett episodes, and the more corporate productions after son Matthew was forced to take over the family business. We’re told that musician Steve Race heard Harry, along with Sooty in an adjoining hotel room in 1953, howling with laughter when he first thought of Sooty hitting him on the head with a hammer. Watching a 1957 episode we’re told that “the humour escalates to even more absurd, dreamlike and childish extremes with seemingly no limitations on what is a ‘good influence’ on the kiddies.”

Among the other delights are John Bowen’s Robin Readbreast, Wendy Toye’s The Stranger Left No Calling Card, and a fascinating examination of Cooking Price-Wise the legendary 1971 Thames TV series in which horror king Vincent Price instructed UK housewives how to cook for a gourmet and make a chess set out of cheese. In the interests of full commercial disclosure it’s worth pointing out that the book also includes articles on Colin Baker’s ill-fated reign as Dr Who and Patrick McGoohan’s outing as Danger Man (including the claustrophobic Don’t Nail Him Yet in which Drake impersonates a socially-awkward schoolteacher to shadow reserved defector John Fraser – “Danger meant earning someone’s confidence through a shared shyness.”).

So what’s ‘The Bodies Beneath’ like? It’s like a big pie – a big Christmas Pie that you buy at a pub. You don’t know what the hell a Christmas pie is but you figure you’ll give it a try. And once you’ve prised the crust away and run your fork through it, you say what about that? A bit of Will Hay and ‘The War Game’, ‘All The Right Noises’ and ‘Electric Dreams’ and that BBC documentary Dan Farson made about his Uncle Bram Stoker and vampires. That’s what I call a Christmas Pie!

The Bodies Beneath – Strange Attractor £15.99

Reckless Opportunists

Rant Posted on Sat, May 25, 2019 14:52:27

With Brexit unfulfilled, a party leader to elect and another election possible, there has never been a better time to read Aeron Davis’ Reckless Opportunists: Elites at the end of the Establishment (Manchester University Press).

Written after 20 years of talking to individuals in power, it seeks to explain our new generation of leaders, “plugged into power, money or both: someone who knows where their interests lie.” But not really in charge. Neither expert nor visionary, nor really in control. “Too many are just reckless opportunists making the best of what they have amid the chaos they have helped create.”

Davis explores the way in which neoliberalism, preaching a smaller state, poorer employees, and untaxed capital, has undermined the Establishment which relies on security, law and social stability. Both Blair and Cameron refashioned their parties as “election winners rather than representative parties,” leading to a fall in membership and the 2016 election in which the political elite, “were given a good kicking.”

At the same time, ambitious civil servants learned the only path to advancement was cutting their own departments and company directors came under pressure from investors to take decisions which would create short term gain and long term pain.

According to Davis, politicians with expertise or experience of the outside world have gradually been replaced by PPE graduates, most of whom work in think-tanks or other political organisations before standing for Parliament. Once elected, the ambitious MP is moved from post-to-post relying on briefs from Civil Servants and party advisors to plug the gaps. The same principle applies to company executives and journalists. “Being a leader means subcontracting out judgement to others who may, or may not, have hidden agenda. It means confidently speaking lines that others have written for you.

Cynics will take comfort in the chapter exploring public consultations, which quotes a former permanent secretary saying, “..many a consultation has already decided the outcome by the time you get to the formal public stage.” The same chapter observes that, “in public, elites of all kinds refer to economist opinions as almost scientific facts. But in private, personal experience shows that too much of economics is too abstract for personal application.

Yet despite this, everyone sticks to the party line. Davis quotes the story of Tony Dye, one of the few fund managers who saw through the dot-com boom but spoke too soon. “Those people who had done the wrong thing – in finance – in politics – had not only survived, they had flourished.”

Davis concludes that the people who run our Government, Business and Finances may be highly educated, but they are far less in control than we think. “They follow more than they lead.”

Davis ends by suggesting “Systems and Principles for reigning in the Elite” in order to produce more appropriate leaders. Although, as he says elsewhere, turkey’s rarely vote for Christmas.

Reckless Opportunists by Aeron Davis – £9.99 Manchester University Press

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