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A THRILLER in Every Corner

Uncategorised Posted on Mon, January 18, 2021 15:16:05

The biggest problem with A THRILLER in Every Corner, Martin Marshall’s unofficial and unauthorised guide to Brian Clemens’ 1970’s TV show, is that every chapter tempts you to stop and rewatch another episode. At 732 pages covering 43 hour long episodes, that’s quite some stop and start!

The dictionary definition of “exhaustive” is: “Thorough, treating all parts or aspects without omission,” and A THRILLER in Every Corner certainly meets that definition. THRILLER was first broadcast by ATV in the 1970’s. Viewers knew it had been sold to an American TV network, the money coming handcuffed to an American guest star in almost every episode. Insomniac tele-addicts were also perplexed to see the THRILLER episodes resurfacing on late-night TV in the 1980’s, masquerading as TV Movies with dire extended title sequences. But Martin Marshall has put every piece of the jigsaw together to reveal a fascinating sequence of events.

For the first time (for most of us) it’s possible to understand the origins and format of the ABC Wide World of Entertainment late-night strand that gave THRILLER (and also Monty Python) its exposure in America. And there’s a lot of side-detail which doesn’t directly relate to THRILLER but is nonetheless intriguing. Two episodes of the BBC’s Quiller TV show starring Michael Jayston* played out in expanded form on Wide World of Entertainment for instance. And the gruelling Yorkshire TV play The Break (1974) starring Robert Shaw turns out to have been part of a two play deal with David Frost to provide product for ABC (the other, Who Killed Lamb, starring Stanley Baker, still survives on the THRILLER box set).

*I’ve been reminded that Michael Jayston also starred in two classic episodes of THRILLER – ‘Ring Once for Death’ and ‘A Coffin for the Bride.’

Paul Burke & Polly Bergen: Echo of Theresa

Despite the level of detail, Martin Marshall has structured the book with plentiful and clear subheadings so that you can follow it in chronological order, or dip in to the sections that interest you. The book is also written in a straightforward but engaging style so that you don’t tire of it, even if you glance at the clock and suddenly realise it’s two in the morning.

Katharine Schofield and Norman Eshley

Sadly, many of the participants are no longer with us, but the book does include comments from a number of actors and technical crew. Norman Eshley, who played Carnation Killer, Arthur Page in The Colour of Blood provides a fascinating insight into this emblematic early episode (the lack of an American guest star appears to have been down to illness on the part of an actress, with Katharine Schofield having to step into the part without rehearsal). I’ve already noted the temptation to stop reading and screen the episode you’re reading about as you learn something new. As Marshall says, Norman Eshley is skillfully disconcerting as the killer, in a script which pulls you right around at least twice, just when you think you know where the story is going to go. The paragraph on page 146, in which Brian Clemens relates the inspiration for this episode is a satisfying little thriller in itself.

The book delivers a comprehensive rundown of the history of the show both during its initial run and afterwards. I was surprised to learn that the TV Movie versions shown on British TV in the 1980’s weren’t part of the original American broadcasts but the result of a bid by ITC’s US arm to squeeze extra mileage out of the product.

THRILLER was made on tape rather than film (albeit with 35mm, rather than the usual 16mm location film inserts). That appears to have been a budgetary consideration from ABC itself (the timeslot was previously occupied by a chat show) and we learn that even Universal started recording TV movies on tape to fill this slot. This is probably the biggest single barrier to modern audiences, raised on film. However, Martin Marshall puts his finger on the appeal of of taped shows; “(the) feeling of ‘immediacy‘. Two interlaced fields for every picture provide an ‘as live’ visual texture…as if one is gazing in a mirror or across a room.” Terror is never further away than a stretched fingertip – that’s a THRILLER.

A THRILLER in Every Corner by Martin Marshall is £28.88 from Lulu.Com at this link

A Ghastly Tale…

Uncategorised Posted on Thu, January 07, 2021 20:25:53

The Nightmare was a one page strip which appeared in SCREAM, the short-lived 1983 IPC horror comic which lasted for 15 issues before being merged into Eagle. Even after the success of 2000AD, many readers were surprised that the staid IPC/Fleetway had even got a weekly horror comic off the ground, so its rapid demise was less of a shock.

Earlier this year, I saw a post on Twitter which recalled The Nightmare

Well, Steve’s recollection was an improvement on the Scream Comic Files website where the verdict was, “this story is bollocks.”

What’s really weird about this strip is that it wasn’t written for Scream. As you can see below, it was bought by Dave Hunt, the editor of Eagle, for a feature they had called The Amstor Computer. It was the only thing I ever managed to sell to Eagle, and I was surprised (but pleased) when it turned up in Scream (incidentally, £23 in 1984 would be worth around £82 in 2020).

As I said, it was the only thing I ever managed to sell to Eagle. And what’s really bizarre is that I got the idea when I saw a book of fairy tales published by Peter Haddock, which had a cover by Johnny Red and One Eyed Jack artist John Cooper. Somehow the image of a hardcore action artist drawing fairy tale characters kicked off the story above. Of course, I didn’t say in my cover letter that this was what had given me the idea, so I was even more pleased and surprised to see that they’d given John Cooper the job of drawing it.

Of course, if I’d known IPC was planning a horror comic, I’d have sent them something along those lines (the only reason I saw the finished job was because I was buying Scream as a reader). But, given the circumstances, over the years, I’ve figured that maybe it was all down to fate – I was walking in front of a bullet with Humpty Dumpty’s name on it that day.

Incidentally, you can check out the whole page at this site where you can read full issues of Scream.

Spyship (1983)

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, January 02, 2021 19:47:01

In the seas between Norway and Russia, the British trawler Caistor disappears in mysterious circumstances as NATO and the Soviet Union keep an uneasy eye on each other.

Adapted by James Mitchell (Callan) from the novel by Tom Keene and Brian Haynes, Spyship was the first starring role for Tom Wilkinson, as a reporter trying to find out the truth about the disappearance of the vessel on which his father was chief engineer. You can read more about Spyship here.

Cribb: Swing, Swing, Together.

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, December 19, 2020 21:28:29
Heather Moray, Alan Dobie, and Albert Welling

Swing, Swing, Together, the first episode of Granada TV’s Cribb was first broadcast on Sunday 20 April 1980. Adapted from Peter Lovesey’s novel by Brian Thompson, it was an engaging opening to the series (Granada had adapted the final Cribb novel, Waxwork, the previous year).

Directed by series producer June Wyndham-Davies and made all on film, the setting was based on the Victorian mania for Jerome K. Jerome’s novel Three Men In A Boat (to say nothing of the Dog). Published in August 1889, the humorous account of a boating holiday along the Thames sold in huge numbers. The following year, readers began to recreate the journey from Kingston-Upon-Thames to Oxford. During an illicit midnight bathing session in the Thames, student teacher Harriet Smith (Heather Moray) sees three men (and a dog) in a boat, close to the point in the river where a body is discovered. Cribb inducts her as a witness on a boat trip along the Thames. Together with his assistant, Constable Thackeray (William Simons) and PC Hardy (Albert Welling) , who had rescued Harriet from the river, they pretend to be recreating Three Men on a Boat so they unobtrusively catch up with the three suspects.

Thackeray (William Simons) questions Michael Ripper

The scale of their task is explained by a lock keeper (played beloved Hammer Films actor Michael Ripper) when Thackeray asks him if he’s seen three men in a boat (with a dog). “I’d like to have a bob for every joker with that hoary old tale – they get through the first night at Runnymede alright, fix at the Crown at Marlowe – then they come through here.mind you, only the real fanatics has a dog!”

When Cribb finally locates the three men in a boat, he tests them as to their knowledge of the book. Though somewhat suspicious, there is no obvious connection with the earlier murder. While trailing their suspects, the detectives encounter two further travellers – Brian Rawlinson (The Onedin Line) as the scripture-quoting Jim Hackett and the preening but improbably-bearded Ronald Lacey as Percy Bustard (“spelt with a U”). Rawlinson is cheerful and open while Lacey adopts a typically scene-stealing cavalier manner. Further up river the two companions pull another body from the Thames but Cribb is forced to let the local police constable take charge in order to conceal his true identity.

Alan Dobie is lightly amusing as Cribb, an educated working-class character, quick-witted and wily. Introduced ten-minutes into the action, he dominates the scene at the training college where he questions Harriet Smith. He tells her that PC Hardy was, “torn like a Christmas cracker” between his promise to keep her midnight swim secret and his duty when the body was discovered. Cribb also over-rules the fearsome college principal Sheila Keith (Frightmare, House of Whipcord) insisting that he needs to take Miss Smith away as a witness. We see a little more of the hierarchical structure of the Metropolitan Police as Cribb sits in the back of the skiff reading Three Men in a Boat, while Thackeray and Hardy row. When Hardy sarcastically suggests that Cribb reads to them, the Sergeant snaps back, “With three hundred pages ? You can read it yourself.”

As the journey progresses towards Oxford, the story becomes something like an ancestor of Inspector Morse. At one of the colleges, Cribb encounters John Fernandez (Mark Burns) who may be a potential victim or suspect, and Mrs Bonner-Hill, played in a deceptively winsome style reminiscent of Fenella Fielding by Jane How. The question for Cribb is how all the leads tie together.

As the lead episode in the series Swing, Swing, Together looks to have had a lot of money spent on it. The background details are convincing, although often played for humour – Cribb receives a call on a primitive telephone and barks his side of the conversation into the mouthpiece while Thackeray sits with his fingers in his ears. The underlying mystery from Lovesey’s novel is well-handled and the climax has a most outrageous revelation, handled with aplomb by the actors’ involved.

Paranoid Visions

Uncategorised Posted on Sat, December 19, 2020 07:27:02

Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and The Secret State in British Television Drama by Joseph Oldham. The bibliography of Paranoid Visions, includes a 1970 Evening News article called Callan Lives credited to Harold Wilson. Could it really be the Prime Minister? Yes. During the broadcast of the third series of Callan, the Prime Minister had byelined an article to remind voters that actor Edward Woodward had joined him at Number 10 Downing Street, “showing distinguished statesmen from abroad what really makes life tick in Britain.” While this was not a unique event (Wilson had invited Patrick Wymark to Number 10 in 1968 to meet the Prime Minister of Luxembourg) , Joseph Oldman notes that this was a demonstration of , “Wilson’s populist touch,” , trading on the national popularity of Woodward and the TV spy who he played.

Paranoid Visions surveys the popularity of TV spy and conspiracy thrillers from Callan to Spooks, and compares the shows to the evolution (or degradation) of the broadcasters that commissioned them. Other chapters look at Special Branch and The Sandbaggers, – Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, SpyBird of Prey and Edge of Darkness -and A Very British Coup . The journey from Callan to Spooks is noted, not just in the kind of stories that are told, but the way in which they are told. Callan is taped in the theatrical tradition. “Different character and narrative beats are communicated by positioning the actors in different parts of the set at different moments, shifting their physical relationship to each other.” ABC’s telescopic lighting system allowed these scenes to be lit in a shadowy, expressive style. By contrast, Spooks was shot on Super 16mm single camera, with fast-cutting, expressive lighting and “ostentatious “ shots of the characters striding in slow motion.

However, it’s not just the externals that are different. Oldham notes that Spooks was commissioned by the BBC to engage with big issues, and the independent contractor Kudos, delivered this in the briefing scenes. Instead of a “single, paternalistic” handover of instructions by the spy chief, Spooks, had an exchange of information around a table, “different characters contributing information, expertise and opinions…This gives the briefing a more democratic atmosphere that in some ways mirrors the open management style of (Greg) Dyke’s BBC.” This brings in Oldham’s general theme that the perception of the spy on TV is inevitably a reflection of the institution which creates the TV.

Edward (Callan) Woodward

Both ITV and the BBC in the 1960’s and 1970’s were heavily regulated, contrasting arms of the establishment. When Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was in pre-production, John Le Carre was asked to suggest the visual design of George Smiley’s ‘Circus’ and he is reputed to have said that it should look like the inside of the BBC.

Tinker, Tailor, Teatime

In the 1980’s , the Thatcher government pursued its aims of deregulation, opening the gates for a wider, but more fragmented structure in which the ultimate aim was arguably the end of the license fee and a move to pay-per-view. Oldham notes that the BBC pursued a strategy for Spooks from 2003 to 2009 in which each episode except the first and last was broadcast on the BBC3 digital channel, “as part of a strategy to incentivise viewers towards digital take-up,” encouraging the shift from ‘water-cooler moments’ to individualised view-on-demand.

This sounds reminiscent of the former Civil Servants and the Department of Trade and Industry interviewed by Aeron Davis in Reckless Opportunists who found the best way to progress in the Thatcher era (and later the ‘New Labour’ era) was to espouse and exceed the ‘small state’ neoliberal ambitions of the Government. In cutting the DTI budget from £6 billion to £1.5 billion (cutting their own headcount) ,“It made the notion of a national industrial policy anathema. It also meant that UK industry suffered a faster decline than all its economic rivals over the same period.” (Davis page 34)

Oldham notes that the BBC mounted The Night Manager nearly 40 years after the success of Tinker,Tailor,Soldier,Spy. But the days of American partners handing over the money and shutting up were long gone. The trend is towards glossy drama aimed at international pay-per-view audiences with every line of scripted burdened by ‘notes’ from multiple ‘producers’. “It is perhaps an open question whether (such shows) will have anything to say for or about the nation.”

Callan survived cancellation in 1969 because the viewing figures were so high that management ordered the final episode to have new, more ambiguous ending filmed (so creating, Oldham points out, the concept of the end-of-season cliffhanger). The Sandbaggers was created because a planned production fell though and Yorkshire Television asked Ian MacIntosh if he had anything to fill the slot. Could today’s sub-contracted and overconsulted TV respond as quickly?

Paranoid Visions is an interesting survey of the spy and conspiracy genres. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on Bird of Prey ( which made me wish it was out on DVD) and A Very British Coup which show how they reflect the times in which they were made, but also point to their contemporary relevance. Oldham also reminds us that The Sandbaggers stands out for its authenticity, as much as being in the tradition of The Power Game, with its focus “on Burnside’s bureacratic battles(demystifying) these structures of power.”

I’ve probably done Oldham a disservice here – by pulling several plums out of the pudding, I’ve not really given a good picture of the pudding as a whole. At 218 pages it’s a comfortable read, one that will interest anyone interested in the spy and conspiracy genre, and one that will repay careful re-reading.

Paranoid Visions: Spies, Conspiracies and the Secret State in British Television Drama. by Joseph Oldham. Manchester University Press £20.00 ISBN 978-1-5261-5253-4

Cribb: The Detective Wore Silk Drawers (1980)

Uncategorised Posted on Thu, December 17, 2020 23:07:43

The Detective Wore Silk Drawers is the third episode of Granada TV’s Cribb, starring Alan Dobie as the Victorian detective. Adapted by Peter Lovesey from his own novel, it was first broadcast Sunday 27 April 1980.

Investigating a headless corpse, Detective Sergeant Cribb traces it back to illegal bare-knuckle fights – held in the countryside at ‘pop-up’ rings, with the location only announced at the last minute (similar to 20th century ‘raves’). Together with Constable Thackeray (William Simons), Cribb inducts amateur boxer PC Henry Jago (Barry Andrews) to infiltrate the ring.

Thackeray, Jago and Cribb

Made in the era when British TV was trending toward all-film drama, this Cribb episode has a disconcerting mix of film and tape. But not the standard mix of film exteriors and tape interiors which viewers had got used to. The episode opens with a taped sequence of a body being found on a theatrical fog-shrouded set of London’s docks, and climaxes with a film sequence of Jago enduring a bloody bare-knuckle fight in a candle-lit mansion. At one point we see Alan Dobie on tape, brooding in a pub and then flash back to a film sequence in the office of Superintendent Jowett (David Waller) who is berating Cribb over his clear-up rate.

Cribb and Thackeray on the docks

However, the constant change of visual style is only a minor distraction in a convincing and well-told tale. As the titular detective in silk drawers, Barry Andrews from The Blood on Satan’s Claw is convincing as the educated, middle-class Jago, who aspires to promotion so that he can marry his girlfriend. Under a false identity, he is taken on as a fighter by Isabel Vibart played by Norma West (Miss Bo-Peep in The Prisoner episode Dance of the Dead) who takes a ‘hands-on’ approach to training.

Cribb uses various wiles to keep in touch with Jago as it becomes clear that prize fighters are being disposed of once they lose fights and have no further worth to their owners. But then, Vibart’s predatory possessiveness and suspicion cuts off communication with Jago. There is plenty of intrigue between rival fighters and Vibart’s accomplices (played by Mark Eden and David Hargreaves) and the plot takes an unexpected left turn at the end of the second act. With Jago left to keep the villains busy in a bare-knuckle fight which can last as long as three hours, the pressure is on for Cribb and Thackeray to find the location.

Cribb and Thackeray speed to the rescue.

In the final fifteen minutes, Alan Dobie as Cribb finally demonstrates some classic detective work, using reasoning to demolish the villain’s alibi’s and then coercing a confession out of the guilty party. While generally light-hearted, Alan Grint’s direction preserves the brutal background to Lovesey’s novel. Dobie’s performance derives a great deal of humour from the character of Cribb, who shows little concern for the constable he has put into danger, but also has to put up with a clueless and carping superior.

Westlake’s lost 007: Forever and a Death

Uncategorised Posted on Wed, December 16, 2020 17:03:11

Forever and a Death is a crime novel by Donald E.Westlake based on a rejected treatment for the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies (1997). As the afterword by Jeff Kleeman explains, Westlake’s treatment was rejected, either because it was too different from the other James Bond films or (after taking into account the producers’ notes) too much like all the other Bond films.

Westlake accepted the rejection and the following year quietly reworked the treatment into a novel. He was so quiet about it that Forever and a Death was only published in 2017 – nine years after Westlake’s death.

Under the name Richard Stark, Westlake is known for the tough crime series about professional thief Parker (filmed as Point Blank, Payback and others). The Hard Case Crimes paperback has an arresting cover by Paul Mann in the style of Bond movie-poster artist Robert McGinnis, so you might have expected Westlake to write something like a Bond movie with a more amoral lead character. But that’s not what he did. Nor did he write in the style of Ian Fleming, or even John Gardner. And whereas Jeffrey Deaver’s Carte Blanche was a Jeffrey Deaver novel about a modern spy called James Bond (in which the villain was one of many suspects, concealed by authorial misdirection) there is no James Bond figure in Forever and a Death.

If there’s a central hero, he’s an accidental hero. An engineer, George Manville who is suddenly put in the position of acting heroically. If he has any precedent, he is more like a tougher version of Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Manville is one of several characters who gradually come together to oppose the villain. Each has their own motivation and they contribute to the unpredictable development of the plot. The book is 464 pages, and I wouldn’t normally approve of that length, but Westlake is such an economic writer that he makes every page rewarding. As Kleeman points out, the villain Richard Curtis is the dominant character. That may not be surprising because Westlake’s novels are usually driven by the characters who are outside the law. Kleeman outlines some of the ways in which Westlake’s novel differs from and matches his James Bond outline. But it can be summed up as the villain being the most interesting character.

In a way, Westlake answers all those smart questions about the super-capitalist characters in the Bond movies; how they cross the line to become villains, how they finance their schemes and how they find a ready pool of expendable drones. Richard Curtis is a property developer, who plans to use a submarine to steal a fortune in gold from the vaults beneath Hong Kong and then destroy the city. He has enough dodgy contacts from his legitimate past to put his scheme into operation. His ‘Oddjob’ figure is a failed works manager, “a blank cheque to be written on,” who has a powerful motivation to follow Curtis’ orders, and gradually moves into criminality, always telling himself that he has no choice. Thinking back to that scene in Octopussy, where Louis Jourdan tells Kabir Bedi to go out on top of the plane and get Bond, Westlake provides a convincing psychological explanation as to why someone would follow an order like that.

As the novel came to a conclusion, I couldn’t help remarking on the irony that the early 1990’s revival of Thunderbirds had featured characters based on Parker (or his usual alias of Charles Willis) and Stark trying to steal antique gold from Venice. One of the big problems with gold bullion is its weight – Westlake acknowledges this in the novel, although his treatment for the Bond movie came up with a science-fiction solution which would have led to a much more dramatic climax. Nevertheless, Westlake works with the real-life circumstances and comes up with a perfectly fitting resolution.

FOREVER AND A DEATH by Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime ISBN: 978-1-78565-423-7 £7.99

The Return of Sexton Blake

Uncategorised Posted on Fri, November 27, 2020 08:51:04

If it had been in hardback, a better title for Rebellion’s new bookazine, The Return of Sexton Blake would have been The Sexton Blake Annual. This is the sort of mix I remember from Brown and Watson annuals in the 1970’s – some comics strips, some text stories and crucially some factual background articles about the character (rather than the sort of loosely-related fillers of the World Distributors era).

So for those who’d never been aware that Sexton Blake had been away somewhere to return from – Sexton Blake was one of the first corporate heroes – predating the like of Doc Savage and Batman. Created in 1893 by Scots journalist Harry Blyth, who sold all rights in the first story to Harmsworth publications. This allowed editor Somers John Summers to exploit Blake from his earliest years with multiple writers creating text stories across several story papers such as Illustrated Chips, Marvel and Union Jack.

As Mark Hodder points out in his opening history of Sexton Blake, the character gradually adopted the outward appearance of Sherlock Holmes (pipe-smoking, high-browed, living in Baker Street), but the detective was always more of a man of action and, “by the advent of the First World War, his Union Jack stories were more Indiana Jones than Sherlock Holmes.”

Blake was always a contemporary character and moved with the times, which means that inevitably, each era’s stories have their own historic charm (one of my favourites has Blake chasing a suspect to Paddington Station. The suspect manages to jump on a departing train to Bristol and for a few seconds Blake stands in exhausted frustration on the platform watching the train disappear into the night. Then he turns to a porter and says, “I’m Sexton Blake, the Detective! I want to hire a train to Bristol!”

Although Blake continued to adapt to each era, the basic setup of Blake, his young assistant Tinker and his housekeeper Mrs Bardell, continued until 1956 when declining sales of The Sexton Blake Library inspired Amalgamated Press editor W. Howard Baker to revamp the character. Blake moved to offices in Berkeley Square, took on a glamorous assistant Paula Dane, and became more of a Simon Templar detective.

The story Count Down for Murder by George Sydney always sticks in my mind because it’s a Moonraker style mystery in which Blake investigates murder at a British space rocket base. I actually came across elements of this story a few years later in 1969 when it was re-written as a Purnell Action Man story book to tie-in with the Action Man astronaut suit. So, it was a personal thrill when I later came across the Sexton Blake story and recognised familiar passages in a different context.

Personal recollections aside, declining sales forced Amalgamated Press to cancel the Sexton Blake Library in 1963. However, in 1965 a deal was done for the character to by licensed to Mayflower Dell as a paperback series under the editorship of W. Howard Baker. The books were successful enough to spin-off into a 1967 radio series starring the urbane William Franklyn with Heather Chasen as Paula Dane and David Gregory as Tinker. Prophetically, this series straddled BBC Radio’s revamp of its 1930’s structure, beginning on the Home Service and ending on Radio 4.

William Franklyn

Equally prophetically, the character had been the subject of an attempt by BBC Drama head Sydney Newman to create a TV series. Newman’s concept had been resisted by Mayflower Dell because it contradicted their sexed-up Sexton. Instead, it opened with the Edwardian Blake being revived from suspended animation in the 1960’s and teaming up with the granddaughter of the original Tinker. Newman’s concept – a man from an earlier era, fighting the crime of the 1960’s – was re-tooled to great success as Adam Adamant Lives starring Gerald Harper. Coincidentally or not, as the paperback series closed shop, Sexton Blake came to ITV. The Rediffusion/Thames series (1968-1971) starred Laurence Payne as Blake and Roger Foss as Tinker and was set firmly in the 1920’s. Fleetway published a tie-in comic strip in Valiant which retained the 1920’s setting. From now on, Sexton Blake would be a man of the past.

In September 1978, BBC 1 screened Sexton Blake and the Demon God. Written by Simon Raven (Doctors Wear Scarlet, Edward & Mrs Simpson) and set in 1927, it starred Jeremy Clyde as Blake and Philip Davis as Tinker. Unfortunately, the production was parodic, sending up the characters and the era in a heavy-handed way.

So, to come back to The Return of Sexton Blake, in 1979 Fleetway (or IPC Comics as they were then) had an opportunity to redress the balance by publishing a Sexton Blake comic strip in Tornado, the sequel to the incredibly successful 2000AD. As Karl Stock relates in a background article, editor Kelvin Gosnell asked writer Chris Lowder (aka Jack Adrian et al) to script the new series. A prolific script writer, Lowder was also a researcher and enthusiast of pulp fiction and fit the assignment like a glove. He provided artist Mike Dorey with visual references from classic Blake artist Eric Parker to make sure the character was on the nose. And then, a few weeks before publication something went wrong. Even today the exact details aren’t known. Despite Mirror Books having published the tie-in novel to the BBC series, IPC comics no longer had the right to exploit its own character. The strip had to be re-titled Victor Drago, with Tinker renamed “Spencer”.

It must have been gutting for Lowder. the script is respectful to the character but has post-modern overtones. It deals with an Edgar Wallace-type celebrity writer who secretly has a staff of ghost writers, whose names are nods to Lowder’s contemporaries such as Ken Mennell, Angus Allan and Scott Goodall (while the servants are named after archivist/historians Bill Lofts and Derek Adley). It must have been a dream assignment. Imagine 2000AD had been cancelled in 2010, and then you get the chance to write a revival of Judge Dredd. And then just before publication they change the name to Sergeant Shiver. So it looks like you’re just ripping off Judge Dredd. Gosnell says, “Chris hasn’t spoke to me since…we were friends as well as colleagues, but because of this I’ve never spoken to him again. And I’d love to.”

So, one of the main selling points of The Return of Sexton Blake is that the whole of the first Tornado story has been reprinted with Blake and Tinker’s names restored. This may not seem a big selling-point – I guess you would really have to have been there in 1979 to know how irritating it was to see “Victor Drago” every week. Like a nagging tooth. And now it’s fixed. Gutsy artwork by Mike Dorey and a great story, well-written with lots of cliff-hangers and an overall sense of conviction.

There’s also a new Sexton Blake strip by George Mann and Jimmy Broxton. This one is set in 1923, drawn in a colourful Metal Hurlant style and is a complete adventure in ten pages. Once again, it is respectful of the character. The rest of the package is filled out with articles by Mark Hodder of on the history of Sexton Blake and the artists who drew him. There is also one-and-a-half vintage Blake short-stories…half because this is all a lead-in to the ongoing series of Blake anthologies which Rebellion Books are publishing – one of the 1960’s Howard Baker titles is scheduled for next year, so they really are trying to give a picture of the changing Sexton Blake.

It may not be a hardcover annual, but for £7.99 The Return of Sexton Blake is certainly a treat you can settle down with over Christmas. You can order it from Rebellion here.

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