Blog Image

The Dobermann Always Rings Twice

Devil’s Advocates: Repulsion

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, July 18, 2021 17:09:39

Repulsion by Jeremy Carr is the latest entry in the Devil’s Advocates series from Liverpool University Press. It deals with the 1965 release starring Catherine Deneuve (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg ) as Carole a paranoid manicurist in swinging London. The other stars include Patrick Wymark, Ian Hendry and John Fraser, all of whom reputedly settled for a lower fee in order to work with the trendy young Polish director Roman Polanski. * Wymark and Fraser would work together again on the Australian premiere of the play Sleuth in July 1970.

*Wymark had been awarded a BAFTA as best TV actor for 1964

Repulsion has been written about so often that the book’s bibliography is wrapped around it like a black lace shawl. There is probably no opinion about Repulsion that has not been written and Jeremy Carr has done his best to pull them into order. However, he starts by acknowledging that, “Roman Polanski probably wouldn’t care for much of what is contained in this book.” He acknowledges that Polanski has played down attempts to read personal meaning into his work, even though, “films like Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant would be forever linked to what befell Polanski’s personal life in the years prior and those following.” (page 88). Ironically though, Polanski himself was not immune to reading hidden meanings into pop art and Carr quotes Barbara Leaming saying that, “although Levin later denied it, Polanski thought that the novelist must have seen Repulsion and been influenced by it. How otherwise account for his own feeling of familiarity.”

The book breaks Repulsion down into themes of Isolation , Sex and Paranoia pulling out an astute reminder from Kate Hagen that while the imagery may seem obvious today, “to present such an imagistic look at a modern London woman’s fear of sexuality and men in 1965 was truly radical.” Any, “what about…” comments are swiftly headed off when Carr includes an eight page section entitled, “Rape and the Polanski Dilemma.” Again marshalling a backlog of comment, Carr suggests that, “there is little to add to the insightful, considerate comments of these female critics.”

With regard to Carole’s paranoia, Jeremy Carr notes that, “for all her aversion…Carol almost seems to seek out these points of revulsion in a form of masochistic torture..” in almost the same way as a modern horror film audience. Similarly, Polanski provides the audience with knowledge the characters do not have (“the unsuspecting landlord who accosts Carol as she stands with the razor blade behind her back for only us to see,”)

After three chapters exploring Carol’s internal landscape, the final section examines the methods by which the inexperienced director and low-budget producers put together the movie. Much like Nigel Kneale in The Quatermass Experiment, Polanski was forced by budget constraints to act as his own special effects assistant in the sequences where the rooms and passages of Carole’s flat shifted shape. “Polanski often handled the contraptions himself, acknowledging, ‘they took longer to set up than expected.'”

After leading us through the journey inside Carol’s mind, Jeremy Carr concludes by saying that in the final moments, “We step outside Carol’s madness to bear witness to the horror of others, a horror that presents the disconcerting notion of what anyone – anyone we know – may be capable of. It’s a curious associative process that Polanski, better than most, could understand and illustrate.”

Jeremy Carr – Repulsion (2021). Auteur – Liverpool University Press £19.99 – ISBN 978-1-80085-933-3

‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood: A Novel by Quentin Tarantino.’

Uncategorised Posted on Fri, July 16, 2021 10:03:16

I don’t think I’ve ever watched a Tarantino movie all the way through – I may have seen some of Pulp Fiction – but I couldn’t resist the paperback, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

For a start, the size and format reminds me of paperbacks back when they were something you could put in your pocket. Back in the days when buying a paperback novelisation was the closest you could get to seeing a film like Enter The Dragon because you were too young to get in X Certificate films. But in execution, it reminds me of Ellery Queen’s 1965 novelisation of A Study In Terror. I say that because – without having seen the movie – the book seems to contain huge digressions which can’t be part of the movie – in a similar way to Ellery Queen having his modern day namesake review Dr Watson’s account of Sherlock Holmes’ encounter with Jack the Ripper and investigate the background of the manuscript.*

*In its page count and behind-the-scenes gossipiness it also reminds me of William Peter Blatty’s Bantam paperback on The Exorcist from Novel to Film

All I really know about he movie Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is that the final new issue of Mad magazine ran a “time warp” black-and-white parody of Bounty Law, the 1960’s TV series which forms the back story of the movie’s “Rick Dalton” (Leonardo De Caprio). The picture I get from the novelisation is that Once Upon A Time in Hollywood centres on Dalton, now reduced to guest shots in TV westerns starring up-and-coming actors. Tarantino has an agent draw a J.G Frazer type analogy with the young stars feasting on Dalton’s reputation every time he plays a villain. “What the audience sees is Bingo Martin whippin’ the guy from Bounty Law’s ass…another coupl’a years playin’ punchin’ bag to every swingin’ dick new to the going to have a psychological effect on how the audience perceives you.” The agent offers Dalton a chance to reinvent himself playing roles in European movies and the story follows the next few days as Dalton makes up his mind. Meanwhile, Dalton’s driver, a former stuntman and psychopathic killer called Cliff Booth is drawn into an encounter with the Manson family, and Manson himself accidentally calls on Dalton’s neighbour Sharon Tate while chasing up a record producer who promised to listen to some of Manson’s songs.

For the most part the novelisation concerns itself with Hollywood tall tales and the characters (or Tarantino’s) musings on 1960’s pop culture. I found most of this entertaining although I’m not sure whether this is because I’m a similar age to Tarantino and can remember Dean Martin and Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew. Tarantino has Tate drop into a cinema that is showing the Matt Helm movie and explores her memories of the moment when she performs her first slapstick fall. Even in the 1970’s when I saw The Wrecking Crew on TV, Tate’s character seemed patronising and misjudged, so it’s poignant to have Tarantino illuminate Tate’s pride at pulling off ‘the Jerry Lewis’ role. He leaves us with a sense of Tate truly (and forever) ‘living in the moment’ – enjoying her success with no thought of a future permanently excised.

Wayne Maunder in LANCER

But the novelisation is dominated by the filming of The High Riders, the pilot episode of Lancer (1968). According to the novel, Lancer was designed as a vehicle for up-and-coming star James Stacey. The novel outlines the process by which Stacey was tested out in a two-part episode of Gunsmoke. In the televised pilot, the series almost seems like a Western precursor of The Persuaders with autocratic rancher Andrew Duggan bringing together his estranged sons to fight off the bandits threatening his property. Aristocratic Scott Lancer (Wayne Maunder) is a former army officer, while Johnny Madrid Lancer (James Stacey) is a former gunfighter and mercenary.

Tarantino has his lead character Rick Dalton playing the villain Caleb DeCoteau- a character who was named Day Pardie and played by Joe Don Baker in the actual TV episode. In the UK, Lancer was screened on BBC 2 in May 1969 – like The High Chaparral – a high-profile series to attract viewers to the new colour service. To be honest, the only scene from Lancer that ever stuck in my memory was from the November 1972 BBC 1 repeat of The High Riders. In the opening sequence a Pinkerton agent tracks Scott Lancer (Wayne Maunder) to Boston with a summons back to the Lancer ranch in California. Maunder is dressed in a top hat and opera cloak, set against a gas lamp. And I guess the reason why it rooted in my memory was because it was the first time I comprehended that America had cities at the same time as the cowboy lifestyle – or perhaps because I realised that cowboy stories were taking place at the same time as Sherlock Holmes stories.

Tarantino goes into a lot of detail about the Lancer pilot, which was directed by Sam Wanamaker, founder of Shakespeare’s Globe and actor in films like The Criminal. That’s important because Tarantino has Wanamaker as a character trying to convince the frankly thick Rick Dalton of the Shakespearean overtones of his character. Whether this happened or not – who knows – Wanamaker was reputedly quite an unworldly director (Harry Robertson told a story about him booking a bunch of jazz musicians to record the score for his movie The File of the Golden Goose (1969) and expecting them to just improvise against the rough cut). But Tarantino’s version of The High Riders is different in many ways from the TV show – almost as if it’s an abandoned treatment for a Tarantino Lancer movie. Perplexingly, Elizabeth Baur’s adult character of Lancer’s niece Teresa, is replaced by a young daughter played by an eight year-old, professional-beyond-her-years actress who becomes Dalton’s mentor.

Despite a creepy chapter featuring a home invasion by the Manson family, the looming horror does not form a climax and is only alluded to in a throwaway paragraph. Tarantino outlines the stepping stones and ranks of Hollywood – the events with which people define themselves and the constant struggle for success. In the novel at least, Rick Dalton finally reaches a kind of satisfaction, realising that it’s better to live in the moment than to constantly berate himself over an imagined lost success. The novelisation is certainly entertaining. Does it give a true impression of the movie? I doubt it. Like all novelisations it lives best in the imagination.

Strangers and Brothers (1984)

Uncategorised Posted on Mon, July 12, 2021 17:59:46
Gareth Thomas as Mountenay expresses his misgivings about the atomic bomb to Eliot (Shaughan Seymour)

Strangers and Brothers, BBC2 1984). Produced by Philip Hinchcliffe, and adapted by Julian Bond, the 13 part adaptation of C.P. Snow’s novels (also known as ‘The Corridors of Power’) only really comes to life with the episodes based on ‘The New Men’ – a fictional account* of Britain’s wartime race to develop an atomic bomb. Shaughan Seymour (below right, with Stephen Riddle) is solidly convincing in the poisoned chalice role of repressed narrator Lewis Eliot who has to spend the entire series observing other characters getting all the best lines

*details were still covered by the Official Secrets Act, so Snow’s atom bomb project is not just fictionalised but disguises actual details such as the location of the project.

The early episodes trace Lewis Eliot (Seymour) making his slow progress from law student to University don. Eliot encounters some lively characters, a rogueish barrister played by Neil Stacy, and radical solicitor George Passant (Tom Wilkinson), But the marriage of repressed Eliot and depressive Sheila (Sheila Ruskin) runs like a flinty core through the early episodes until her heart-breaking suicide. Episode 5 adapts ‘The Masters’ which had already been a West End stage play and is entertaining in its own right (John Carson and Clifford Rose vying to be next Master of their college.)

STRANGERS AND BROTHERS only catches fire with episode 7, adapting ‘The New Men’. During World War 2, Eliot Getliffe (Paul Hastings) and Rose (Edward Hardwicke) are tasked by the Minister (Geoffrey Chater) with setting up Mr Toad – Britain’s atom bomb. Made at the height of 1980’s nuclear paranoia, director Jeremy Summers casts a bleak tension over the fictional British atomic bomb project, as scientists slowly pour heavy water into the pile.

When Project leader Luke (Paul Hastings) and idealistic scientist Sawbridge (Nigel Leach) are accidentally exposed to the plutonium, the depiction of radiation poisoning is matter-of-fact but unsettling. Through swollen lips, Luke confides to his wife Nora (Vivienne Ritchie) that no-one really knows what the consequences will be.

Unlike Sawbridge, physicist Mounteney (Gareth Thomas) has always taken a matter-of-fact approach saying he enjoyed science for its own sake without thought of the consequences. Appalled at the thought of the atom bomb he’s helped develop actually being used, he leads the project scientists in demanding that Eliot take their fears to Government. But Elliot’s dilemma is resolved by the Americans, who have developed and dropped the first atom bomb.

Major Darling (Simon Oates) suspects that the idealistic Sawbridge ( Nigel Leach) has leaked atom bomb secrets to the Russians. Darling tries to get a confession but admits he likes Sawbridge. It is Eliot’s ambitious brother Martin ( Stephen Riddle) who finally pushes Sawbridge to confess. Martin confesses to Lewis that while Lewis hides his feelings, Martin really does not care about other people. “Sometimes it’s only the cold who can be effective.”

My Brilliant Career as a Ghost Hunter

Uncategorised Posted on Tue, May 18, 2021 18:05:21

The great thing about the late 1980’s was that everything was marketable – even the afterlife.

When I was a kid, I dreamed of being a magician like Doctor Strange, using spells from ancient tomes to prise open the locks of nature. But the 1980’s revealed that the true magicians were the accountants – their ancient grimoires were ledger books, the mystic incantations were Ponzi schemes. Instead of fracturing reality with a Steve Ditko special effect, the true sleight of hand was a leveraged buyout. In days gone by it took a fraudulent medium with cheesecloth and floating tambourines to relieve the credulous of their cash. By the 1980’s, all that was needed was an investment promoter with a video presentation and slick prospectus.

But it took my pal, Mickey Cavicci to bring the two together with Para-Psych Investigations. His electroplated tongue convinced investors that there was a hungry market out there waiting to be serviced. On the hamburger level of the supernatural was the equivalent of Pay Day loan customers, willing to enter into a financial commitment to satisfy a deep-rooted need. Moving up to the smaller, but more financially rewarding core of Berni Inn customers, were those who in later years would divert their disposable income to nailbars, Botox injections or cosmetic dental work. And then there was ultimate goal of some company or educational establishment willing to squander its resources on a search for the afterlife.

Considerable thought was put into our office. We ensure our doorway was not too intimidating for the Hamburger clientele, but not too ‘common’ for the Berni Inn crowd. Ceiling to floor curtains over the window – thin enough to let the light in, but opaque enough to create an aura of mystery and confidentiality. Subdued purple mood lighting in the corners, pre-fitted strip lights overhead. Contemporary desk and chairs on hire, and a state-of-the-art Amstrad word processor providing a reassuring note of modernity to offset the gothic photographs on the wall.

The business strategy was to aim for a 40% clear-up rate for the sake of credibility. Reassure both the clearly deluded Hamburger customer and the neurotic Berni Inn client as quickly as possible, getting them out of door on a cloud of conviviality so that they could go out and spread the word about our unbiased service as quickly as possible. It was a bit like seduction ; only the customers who knew what they were letting themselves in for would be strung out into a long-term relationship.

As far as “haunted houses” went, I soon found that it paid to sub-contract to an experience builder. Every building has a life-cycle. Or as J.E. Gordon put it, “All structures will be broken or destroyed in the end – just as all people will die in the end. It is the purpose of medicine and engineering to postpone these occurrences for a decent interval.”* Far too often the inhabitants give the building the equivalent of plastic surgery but neglect the structure. The ancient reproach and laments sensed by the dwellers of haunted houses were often the result of the decaying soul of the building. A quick survey by an experienced builder would often identify the source of the discontent.
* J.E.Gordon, Structures (Penguin 1978) page 324

I’ve laid this all out in pretty cold-blooded terms. You’re probably coming up with objections and there’s probably nothing I didn’t say to myself over the three years until the bubble burst. There were, and probably still are, a lot of people who want to believe there is something on the other side of the door. How far was I helping them? How far was I exploiting them? I some ways, I was no different from a bookie, responding to a need. But then the limit of a bookie’s interaction was taking money off people over a counter – I was having to interact with them on a deeper level, trying to read what they really wanted out of our service before deciding whether to consign them to the 40% clear up quota or string them out for longer. And, I forgot to mention that Mickey employed a team of telesales girls from his other activities to field any phone enquiries and promise them the universe.

The case that really sticks in my mind is one of the first. It ended up being part of the 40% clear-up cases, but that was nothing to do with me.
Mickey was excited because It looked like it might be the big one. A chemical plant up north was having trouble in one of its new labs. People were feeling disturbed and had even started seeing things. It had been low key so far, but the management wanted to clamp down while it was still summer. They didn’t want hysteria to spread into the dark winter afternoons.

I drove over with Bronco, our tame builder, the next Saturday. It was a dull overcast day, and although there were only maintenance shifts in the plant, there was still a constant howl of processes in the background. The important thing is that no-one was working in the pre-fabricated buildings that held the haunted lab, so we could do our checks in secret. We were met by the production manager who was clearly under orders to get this problem sorted, whatever he might have thought about our competence. “One thing you can be sure of. It’s nothing to do with chemicals from the plant. The lab windows are sealed and we’ve done belt-and-braces checks for that kind of thing.” Even so ,this was the 1980’s, so the health and safety induction went as far as the instruction to run in the same direction as everyone else if an alarm went off.

As Bronco ran his checks over the main structure of the lab, I applied my limited knowledge to the office section where most of the sightings had been reported. It was stuffy because the windows had to be sealed shut, and even with the primitive air conditioning going full blast, I became aware of a sense of oppression. As if I wasn’t alone.

Towards twelve, Bronco moved into the office area and after a couple of minutes I could tell he’d found something. With a look of sly satisfaction, he looked at his watch and said he was going to drive into town and fetch some fish and chips. I knew it was pointless trying to ask him what he’d found. He preferred to let me spend a good half-hour trying to guess the answer so that his expertise would be unchallenged when he whipped the silk scarf away to reveal the rabbit. I reminded Bronco that the production manager had said we could eat free at the staff canteen, but Bronco pointed out that if we did that we wouldn’t be able to claim the expenses back.

Even so, I was feeling both chilled and sweaty and still had the sense of being observed. I certainly didn’t fancy staying in the lab on my own, so as Bronco drove off, I stopped outside the prefabricated buildings to get a bit of what passed for fresh air. As I traced the yellow lines marking the “safe pavement”, I turned the corner and spotted something incongruous. Behind the metal pipelines and beneath a cooling tower, there was a small Victorian manor house. I couldn’t help stepping over the yellow lines, onto the pitted tarmac to get a closer look. It was an old house with no sign of life. The only sound was the drone of the factory. I got the feeling I was being watched, but couldn’t see any faces in the uncurtained windows.

Suddenly, I glanced behind me. There was a worker in overalls and hard hat, his eyes fixed on me. I was embarrassed to realise I’d been caught breaking the rules, walking in the process area, but he didn’t seem too bothered. I tried to excuse my breach by babbling on about how remarkable the sight of the building was.

He laughed and explained the “big house” was used as offices. It had once been the home of the local Earl. The story went that the post war Labour government had done a compulsory purchase on the surrounding land to build the much-needed chemical plant. Although others said the Earl’s family were absentee landlords down in London by then, and had squeezed a good price out of the company for the house. But if the government had expected the chemical firm to eradicate this last trace of the aristocracy, they had mis-judged the executives who thought the “big house” would make a fine setting for their offices. It had been that way for 30 or 40 years but now the management consultants eviscerating the company had decided it was better to flatten the house and use the space to expand production facilities. So now it just stood empty, condemned, awaiting the bulldozers.

When Bronco returned, he explained his theory over pie and chips. He put his spirit level against the wall of the office space. The bubble trembled slightly. There was some kind of vibration coming from the air conditioning. It was an effect that had first been noticed in the 1970’s – infrasound (or low frequency noise as I believe we have to call it today) – too low to hear, but generating feelings of unease and hallucinations.

It was likely the fan in the air conditioning unit had been thrown off its centre of gravity. A build up of dust could do it. Of course, it was just a theory. The scientific approach would be to test it with specialised equipment. And we knew Micky would want to spin this out into an exhaustive and expensive investigation. We met the production manager in the foyer. As we walked toward the door, I spotted a framed black and white photo of the “big house” under the pipelines.

Thinking to start laying the groundwork, I nodded to the photo and said, “Most people would expect the root of the problem to be in there.” The production manager pulled open the door, “Just as well we dropped it then.”

As we stepped out onto the yellow-lined pavement, I tried to process what he’d said. We turned the corner and I saw that he was right. There was nothing ahead except the pipelines, cooling towers, and a two-tone expanse of tarmac, darker and fresher in the distance where something had once stood.

Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round (1966)

Uncategorised Posted on Fri, May 07, 2021 07:22:54

The movie Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round haunted me for years. But it was a different kind of haunting. For a start I couldn’t remember the title. In fact, all I could recall was being disappointed by a James Coburn film I saw around 1968 on a double-bill with a Jerry Lewis comedy.

I knew I was disappointed because the film was nothing like the spy movie In Like Flint (1967), but the passing years made it more and more difficult to articulate why. Grasping at the opaque memory, it seemed that James Coburn did nothing except sit around an airport dressed like an old man (I later realised that was how my eight year old psyche interpreted Coburn’s disguise as an Australian detective). And there wasn’t even an ending – the movie just seemed to stop.

Camilla Sparv in the enigmatic final shot

Years later, I researched the double bill and realised that the film was Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round , which had become best known for the story Harrison Ford told about his movie debut. Ford plays a bellboy, and was later told by an executive that, “Tony Curtis delivered some groceries and you could tell he was going to be a star. Kid, you aint got it!”

Harrison Ford – You could learn a lot from a life like mine

But, a couple of weeks ago, I was reading what Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi had to say about the movie and its writer-director Bernard Girard in their ground-breaking reference The American Vein (Talisman Books 1979). “That splendidly tight, austere, elliptic thriller…”

Does that praise suddenly shed light on Wicking’s head-scratching script for the movie Scream And Scream Again? Perhaps. Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round really is one of those movies that fares better on DVD, where you go can go back from the ending, back to the beginning and start to think maybe you understand where it was coming from.

In some ways, Dead Heat…is like a Richard Stark novel with the violence taken out. Coburn plays Eli Kotch, a recently-paroled con-man who is offered a scheme by a fellow convict to rob the bank at Los Angeles Airport. In order to buy the plan, Kotch ( who is wanted by the LA police for parole violation), crosses the country from Denver to Boston, seducing housemaids so he can steal their keys and burgle their wealthy employers.

The title Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round comes from a manuscript which Kotch shows servant Inger Knudson (Camilla Sparv) when her marries her under the guise of struggling writer Henry Silverstein. But it may well sum up Kotch’s efforts during the movie. Inger unwittingly serves the same function as Parker’s girlfriend Claire, setting up a home in LA, where he can hide while putting the final phase of the heist in place.

Putting aside Harrison Ford’s scene, the movie features some other familiar faces. Fourth-billed Nina Wayne, from Camp Runamuck (1965) plays Monroe-voiced housemaid Frieda Schmid , who meets Kotch more than half-way when it comes to seduction. Wayne would later play Charisma Beauty (“real name Gladys Weems”) in the TV movie The Night Strangler (1973).

Put a beard on this guy and you’ll recognise him

Part of the plot includes preparations by the State Department’s Milo Stewart (Robert Webber) and the LAPD to receive the plane of the Russian Premier. And Stewart’s aide, Alfred Morgan is played by Todd Armstrong . from Jason And The Argonauts (1963), sounding slightly different when not dubbed by Tim Turner.

And in the scene where conspirator Michael Strong is trying to get through passport control, the airline attendant is played by Abel Fernandez, who had been agent Youngfellow in The Untouchables (1959- 1963). Strong, plays Paul Feng, a movie bit-part player, reminiscent of the actor character Grofield in Richard Stark’s Parker novels. Feng is pleased to see that the costume he wears in the heist was last used by Jack Lemmon! Michael Strong, like most of the cast, was prolific TV guest star, immortalised in the original A&BC Star Trek bubble gum cards for his role as Dr Korby in What Are Little Girls Made Of?

Since part of my original dissatisfaction was down to the fact that this movie is nothing like In Like Flint, it’s doubly ironic that much of the movie takes place around the still-modernistic Los Angeles Airport – architecture which stood in for the futuristic enemy base in How To Steal The World ( a Man From UNCLE movie).

Remember the UNCLE stuntmen tumbling off those walls?

LA airport’s Theme Building by Langenheim, Pereira and Luckman

So is the movie, “Spendidly tight, austere, elliptic?” Certainly, watching the movie a second time, things begin to fall in place. That memory I had of Coburn ‘doing nothing’ during the robbery is physically accurate. Coburn and his sidekick Aldo Ray have set the situation and laid the trail for their escape, but it’s their associates Michael Strong and Severn Darden who actually carry out the robbery while Coburn strolls around the airport.

Severn Dardern and Michael Strong

Coburn, as Kotch is a master manipulator. At one point, still posing as an Australian detective extraditing Ray, he arranges for policeman Larry D Mann to escort them through the airport. Mann offers to carry the bag full of heist money and when he says the bag is heavy, Coburn replies, “It should be – all the bloody evidence is in there!”

Coburn, Aldo Ray and Larry D. Mann

It would have been interesting to see what William Goldman made of this movie – especially given his thoughts on the construction of heist movies in Adventures In the Screen Trade – the movie still feels like it could be tightened up in the first half. But perhaps it succeeds on its own terms. Maybe they should have billed Dead Heat On A Merry-Go-Round as The World’s First Zen Heist Movie!

The Aweful Mr Goodall

Uncategorised Posted on Tue, April 06, 2021 01:10:39

Friday 5th April 1974 saw the debut of two ITV spy series – both limited to only six episodes – which have a strange resonance on Monday 5th April 2021. ITC’s The Zoo Gang saw former WW2 resistance agents Lili Palmer, John Mills, Brian Keith and Barry Morse teaming up in modern-day France to bring miscreants to justice. And at 9pm, Robert Urquhart (test pilot Henry Forbes in The Plane Makers) starred as a DI5 troubleshooter in London Weekend Television’s The Aweful Mr Goodall.)

Produced by Richard Bates – who had once been involved with The Avengers but ominously declared in pre-publicity that he couldn’t take plots seriously and said this series was, “more about people than espionage.” 55-year old widower Jack Goodall was on the surface a retired civil servant living the quiet life in Eastbourne. A former Lieutenant-Colonel and Malaya veteran, Goodall had spent 15 years in MI5 as a spycatcher. Due to his aweinspiring talents he would be drafted in as a consultant to DI5 (Military Intelligence now repositioned as Defence Intelligence) by former colleague Millbrook (Donald Burton – who had played a Czech fixer in The Power Game episode The Outsider).

Goodall was a lover of Turner, Elgar and all things English. In the first episode, A Good English Breakfast by Roger Marshall, he is introduced to hotelier Alex Winfield (Isabel Dean) who can provide him with the cherished meal of the title. With that need satisfied, his next challenge is to track down the son of a former colleague, who has gone AWOL from the army. Goodall finally corners the absent officer on a ferry to Sweden, where he orders him to stand to attention before lecturing him on his responsibilities. Goodall offers him the choice of returning voluntarily, rather than being escorted back to camp under close arrest. Elizabeth Allen, who reviewed the episode for The Stage observed that, “the pace is gentle, if at times almost sleepy…no-one is bruised or battered, either physically or mentally.”

The series explored Jack Goodall’s straightforward patriotism in A Day to Remember by Roy Russell. With only three characters, the episode saw Jack taking Alex to lunch at the estate of an old army friend James Connelly (David Waller). Alex is appalled by Connelly’s fascist views and her open dislike of Goodall’s friend tested their relationship. Isabel Dean made the series at the same time as playing the British Ambassador’s wife in the film Ransom . She flew back from Oslo to record her final scenes with Robert Urquhart among the war graves in Normandy. “We found it utterly depressing. Thousands and thousands of graves, and beyond them the sea, “ she told the TV Times, “We didn’t have to act: those graves said it all.”

Mr Goodall used his “sixth-sense” in a variety of cases. Jacqueline Pearce appeared as Madame Prigent, in Clara involved with the murder of a British agent over in France (ironically, she would appear in The Zoo Gang, the following week although at least she actually got to film in France for the ITC series). In The Good Samaritan Goodall tackles a passport smuggling racket. Indiscretion finds high ranking civil servant Peter Jeffrey hospitalised having attempted to commit suicide and refusing to say why.

Despite scripts from the calibre of Roger Marshall and Trevor Preston, The Aweful Mr Goodall never seemed to take off. Screened opposite Fall of Eagles the costume drama about the Habsburg’s on BBC1 and World Cinema on BBC2, ratings for the first couple of weeks saw it placed at number nine, doing particularly well in Scotland, Lancashire and the North East. But by the 18th of May it had sunk to number 14. The Coventry Evening Telegraph admitted that the series had, “attracted a fair share of devotees but never developed into compulsive viewing.” However, Alan Browning in the Liverpool Echo wrote that, “Mr Goodall seemed quite a promising character on paper, but hasn’t lived up to expectations on the screen. He’s turned into a typical civil service bore.”

Richard Bates had been involved with the ill-fated attempt by LWT to bring Tinker,Tailor,Soldier,Spy to television and it’s tempting to speculate whether this series was born out of a desire to prove that LWT’s approach was right. If so, the answer would seem to be no. With only six episodes and no compulsive following, Mr Goodall seems to have drifted back into the obscurity he desired. Update 7 April: Thanks to Joseph Oldham for pointing out that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was published June 1974, therefore Jack Goodall preceded, rather than followed LWT’s attempt to televise Smiley.

That Old Black Magic

Uncategorised Posted on Sun, April 04, 2021 18:44:39

That Old Black Magic (2018) by Cathi Unsworth. This is not going to be a long review. I was completely beguiled by this book. I got into it very easily and had to ration the chapters after I got half way through because I didn’t want it to end too soon.

It’s set in 1940’s Britain and follows Detective Sergeant Ross Spooner as he hunts a German agent in wartime Birmingham. At the heart of the story is the mystery of a murdered woman whose remains were found inside an old wych elm tree in 1943. Although she was never identified, mysterious graffitti began to appear a year later asking, “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” Spooner also encounters Helen Duncan, a real-life medium and the last person to be tried for witchcraft in Britain after she revealed the secret news of the sinking of HMS Barham at a seance.

This isn’t one of those Harry Potter of Scotland Yard thrillers that are popular now. It’s solidly grounded in the real world, with a lurking question of whether the supernatural really exists. MI5 gives Spooner a cover as a theatrical agent and this gives him an excuse to roam the pubs and theatres of blackout Britain. Cathi Unsworth conjures a convincing sense of time and place. It wasn’t until page 293 that I came across something I questioned as anachronistic. I actually wrote it down because it made me realise how completely I’d been taken in until that point.*

Unsworth says in the acknowledgements that she felt Dennis Wheatley had been an “avuncular spirit guide” – a comment that brought me up sharp because a couple of times, I had thought That Old Black Magic was like a Dennis Wheatley thriller without the patrician lectures. That does create a dilemma. The question everybody asks about crime thrillers is, “are there any plans to turn it into a movie?” But really, it would take Terence Fisher and the Hammer Films of The Devil Rides Out (1968) to do That Old Black Magic justice.

*It was the use of the term “gig”, which research now tells me was first documented in Melody Maker in 1926 and therefore could have been used in the 1940’s. It was the curse of 21st Century neoliberalism that threw me. But it also indicates how convincing the book is in general .

That Old Black Magic by Cathi Unsworth. Serpent’s Tail/Profile Books £12.99 ISBN 978 1 78125 727 2

Thunderbirds: Canal Zone Catastrophe

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, March 27, 2021 17:15:32

The accidental blocking of the Suez Canal in March 2021 by the Evergreen container ship Ever Given has stirred memories of the Thunderbirds strip by Alan Fennell and Frank Bellamy which was first published in July 1967 in TV Century 21. In the comic strip it was a new Nicaraguan Canal which was blocked by the atomic liner President.

The comic strip opened on the centre spread of issue 130 with a stunning splash panel of the atomic ship President leaving New York on its maiden voyage on 15 July 2067 . Frank Bellamy underlined the scale of the vessel showing a jet plane streaking beneath the prow of the liner. As the President sets sail for Australia, Scott and Jeff Tracy fly overhead in Thunderbird 1. Keeping high to avoid air corridors and recognition, Scott suggests they take a look at , “The new canal…another piece of engineering genius.” Jeff agrees: “The old Panama would never have been big enough to take ships as large as the President.”

The continuity informs us that, “past troubles in the Panama Zone forced the World Government to order the building of a new canal across friendly Nicaragua….three times the size of the Panama…and less trouble to control and navigate.”

In the real world, the U.S. control of the zone around the Panama canal had been challenged by nationalists, culminating in fatal riots in January 1964. Control of the zone would not be ceded to Panama until 1977, and it was only in 2014 that construction of a Nicaraguan canal was approved!

Frank Bellamy’s opening spread

As Thunderbird 1 flies over Nicaraguan towns and villages, Jeff comments: “Not thirty miles from here, millions of dollars have been spent on a new seaway, yet those hovels haven’t been touched in one and a half centuries! ” The timescale invokes Nicaragua’s Somoza dynasty, dating back to 1937 with the third member becoming President on 1st May 1967.

In a village below, three Nicaraguan’s gather: “While the government grows fat from the dollars paid by the ships on the canal, we starve in misery.” They agree it is time to make a big noise and in the final panel, the leader Juan delares, “I have it! The new ship. The President! We will blow her up.!”

In the second installment, Juan gathers supporters in his bid, “to tell the world of our poverty and the way our government is turning its back on us!” One of the villagers objects that destroy the big ship is wrong, but another responds, “Is it not also wrong for people to live in squalor like we do? Have we not tried everything else?” Gathering explosives experts and former construction workers, “Juan does not include bloodshed in his plans.” He tells them, “We will stop the President by blocking the canal. All the passengers and crew will be ordered to leave…then we will blow up the ship.”

But unknown to Juan, his plans are about to be disrupted by Casta and Golan, very much in the XL5 and Stingray vein of villainous duo’s. Fearing the troops will kill them, Casta argues, “We must form an army to protect ourselves.” Golan says he knows men “who think as we do.”Casta is engineer of a small tanker which rams the President. As the liner begins to take on water, it drifts blocking the canal. Juan gives orders for the ship to be abandoned but now, Casta and Golan threaten to shoot any passengers or crew who leave the ship.

With the President damming the canal, flood waters spread, threatening rural villages. The captain of the liner radios the World Maritime Agency saying his passengers and crew are under threat from armed men. The Nicaraguan government prepares to send in troops to put down the revolt. Jeff Tracy intervenes: “this calls for diplomacy, not guns” and International Rescue is given 24 hours to resolve the situation. “If you have not succeeded by then, the rebels will be put down!” In Thunderbird 1 Scott begins to rescue villagers as their homes are engulfed.

While Thunderbird 2 uses mechanical grabs to repair the breach in the canal, Thunderbird 4 examines the damage to the President. But then the liner keels over, trapping Gordon and Thunderbird 4. Juan dives into the water to help free Gordon while Thunderbird 1 and Thunderbird 2 attach cables to the liner and pull it upright.

Seeing Juan’s example, the rebels agree that co-operation is the best policy. Casta and Golan realise that, “this rabble will no longer hear us,” and make their way to the massing army where they tell the General that, “the rebels have been joined by foreigners in heavily armed aircraft.”

The army opens fire on Thunderbird 2 and the rebels. Scott blinds the army with a smokescreen from Thunderbird 1 while Gordon and Juan race across the firestorm to convince the officers that they’ve been misled by Casta and Golan. As the President resumes its voyage, Jeff tells Gordon that, “Juan and his men have been pardoned by the Government. The shattered villages will be rebuilt – and not as slums this time.”

The President storyline is one of the most ambitious of the Thunderbirds comic strips in TV Century 21. The contrast between the engineering marvels of the 21st Century and the poverty of the Nicaraguan region is dramatically rendered by Bellamy. The trigger for the action is unique – I can’t think of another story that directly referred to the real world this way. The undermining of Juan’s relatively peaceful plan by Casta and Golan is also quite bold. In some ways the two viewpoints are reminiscent of the peaceful Aphony and aggressive Titan in Marina, Girl of the Sea but again much more realistic.

The storyline ran from issue 130 to 136 of TV Century 21, and was reprinted in March/April 1992 in issues 11 to 13 of Thunderbirds The Comic. If you want to read the strips it’s probably easiest to get hold of the 1990’s Fleetway comics although you should bear in mind that the litho printing reproduces the art in a smaller size. To see Frank Bellamy’s art at its best (even yellowed by age) you really need to try and get hold of the original tabloid photogravure comics. However, issue 13 of the Fleetway comic does have the bonus of a cover by Graham Bleathman depicting the Thunderbird ships trying to right the President and an original centrespread cutaway by Graham Bleathman, based on Frank Bellamy’s design but showing all original interiors.

Next »