Tuesday, May 23, 2017

I Saw Elvis In A Potato Chip Once 13 - The X-Files 1.13 - Beyond The Sea

I'm meant to be on holiday by the pool in Spain this week (so no "Golden Sunsets" post sadly), but I realise that yet again I am hugely behind on both watching "The X-Files" and posting my mini reviews. I'm not giving up though, even if these comments may have to become more in line with the size of my "Random Ravings" posts. That's a roundabout way of saying...better late than never...

The X-Files 1.13 - Beyond The Sea

So we go from the ridiculous to the sublime, following up the worst episode of the season with one of the best. It's a real deliberate and emotional character study, centred on a pair of sensational performances from Gillian Anderson and Brad Dourif, as for the first time Scully becomes the believer and Mulder the sceptic.

The opening sequence is quite surreal and spooky. One moment we are watching Scully in an slightly awkward exchange with her parents about her job and before you know it, she's asleep on the sofa in front of the TV (we've all done it). But wait - Dad's still here - supposedly talking but no sound is coming from his lips. The phone rings and Scully finds out he's actually just died an hour ago. Cue the credits... Okay so perhaps it's not that original a stinger, but it sets the tone for what's to come. Scully is on the back foot, her rational mind and belief in science brought into question and she finds herself inexorably drawn to Boggs - the murder on death row who seemingly can provide her with some closure.

What I find particularly interesting about this scenario is how it to an extent riffs on the very real world of "psychics" and the way that they can (and do) use cold reading techniques to fool the bereaved into thinking they can contact the afterlife. Like my favourite entertainer Derren Brown, I'm fascinated by the "skill" involved in fooling people, even if I do not in any way approve of the reasons.

On one hand Boggs seems to be the typical charlatan, faking the voices and his messages from the dead. Mulder doesn't believe a word of it and even catches him out with a nice bit of fakery of his own. But on the other hand he seems to be at the mercy of these visions and whatever is controlling him. There is certainly more going on here - what exactly is it that Scully sees when she gets these glimpses of her departed father? It's not as if she is mistaking a similar looking man for her dad (as I once did for my own grandfather some time after he had died) - she is really experiencing something unsettling. Boggs knows things that no amount of parlour trickery could pull off.

This switch  between the exposure of a con artist and a genuine paranormal experience is a fine line for the episode to walk and the fact that it leaves so much still unanswered, yet at the same time feels complete is down to the great writing and acting. Brad Dourif might be a bit of an expert at playing unstable nasty characters, but he manages to make an unrepentant death row inmate somewhat sympathetic, and I did change my opinion of Boggs as the episode progressed.


One could argue that Scully sees what she wants to see and hears what she wants to hear - even if there is something paranormal at work You could also say that it pushes the concept too far - would she really break down like that in front of a convict despite all the emotional stress she was under? My problem  with the episode was more that Milder seemed very out of character. Usually he's the one who's open to believing six impossible things before breakfast, but here his rejection of anything Boggs says feels like the writers trying to generate conflict for conflicts sake.

What's intriguing though is that in the closing moments, Mulder asks why she can't believe in what she's seen, and she says, "I'm afraid to believe.". I'm hoping that this might mean Scully is more open to things in future...

Other thoughts and facts:
  • Another joke about Mulder's porn addiction. I guess it's preferable to being caught looking at alien abduction reports

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 20 - 1986

We love you. That's why we're here...

1986:

The trivia:
  • As a fundraising publicity stunt for the "United Way" charity, organisers released one and a half million balloons into the skies above Cleveland, Ohio. Unfortunately it all went disastrously wrong when the balloons clogged roads and waterways, shut down an airport runway, and forced the Coast Guard to suspend the search for two missing fishermen, who sadly ended up drowning. Multiple damage claims were made for millions of dollars.
  • The cult dark comedy fantasy "Troll" stars Noah Hathaway (more famous as Atreyu in "The NeverEnding Story") as a character named Harry Potter Jnr. He is introduced to a hidden world of magic by a mysterious old woman who lives in the apartment upstairs. Just conicidental similarities to the J.K. Rowling publishing phenomenon? The producers of "Troll" don't think so...
  • An estimated 30 million people tuned into a two-hour television special to watch star Geraldo Rivera open a secret vault beneath the Lexington Hotel supposedly owned by crime lord Al Capone. Hyped to possibly hold dead bodies or vast sums of cash, it actually turned out to be completely bare - except for a few empty bottles.
The memory:

A Very Peculiar Practice

Famously only written by Andrew Davies because he discovered he owed the BBC £17,000, this darkly comic satire is probably the finest thing actor Peter Davison has ever been part of (and that includes Doctor Who). Set in the fictional Lowlands University, "A Very Peculiar Practice" sees Davison play the painfully shy, mild mannered and idealistic Stephen Daker who joins the campus medical centre. All he wants is to make people better and get through the day. But instead of a set of highly professional colleagues, Daker discovers he has walked into a practice on the verge of collapse. 

At it's head is the booze-soaked Jock McCannon, played with feverish relish by the incredible Graham Crowden. Jock used to be a good doctor but now is disillusioned and apoplectic about the changes planned by the university Vice Chancellor, Ernest Hemingway (no, not that one), who Jock is convinced has it in for him.  Dictating his mythological treatise on the ills of modern life - "The Sick University" - into a tape recorder, Jock also bemoans his loss of virility, purpose, ability to cure and the crushing inevitability of his own demise.

Alongside this old retainer is the arrogant, constantly underachieving Alan Sugar wanabee Bob Buzzard - always one step away from a hyper active nervous breakdown. It's a role that was made for David Troughton. Bob has no interest in his patients, seeing them as an unpleasant distraction from his goals of climbing the corporate ladder. His scheming and sycophantic attempts to better his lot in life provide many of the best elements of humour.

The final piece in the Lowlands medical jigsaw is the white-coated Nurse Rose Marie played by Barbara Flynn. A radical ultra-feminist bisexual who believes that men are the root of all that is wrong with the world, she also oozes a powerful sexuality and manages to tie poor Doctor Daker (and any watching red-blooded males) in confused knots.


In between coping with the oddball behaviour of his fellow doctor's, Daker tries to support the student's emotional well-being, cure the faculty of their various malady's, handle the outbreak of an STD *and* deal with the machinations of the amoral Hemingway - who just wants to cut funding and earn tons of cash from foreign students. He also begins a tentative relationship with research student (and police woman) Lyn Turtle, who helps him overcome his touch phobias.

Series two sees the university purchased by smooth American Jack Daniels and his defence-contract buddies, who have an eye on stopping all that annoying ‘learning’ nonsense and turning the site into a pure research facility. Lyn has left to go back to the police force and Daker instead gets involved with feisty Polish art student Grete Grotowska.

The series is a biting satire on the state of British society as much as a character piece and is full of wonderful guest appearances from a bevy of British actors - including a very young Hugh Grant. There is a surrealist element to proceedings too - most prominently with the ever more bizarre antics of two unnamed and silent nuns, who are always digging through the rubbish bins, speeding round the campus in a Mini and getting drunk. The nuns seem to be like the ravens at the Tower of London - if they leave, the university dies. Andrew Davies even writes himself into the narrative, in the form of Ron Rust, a creative writing tutor who owes a large sum of money so tries to pen a television series based on Lowlands, The problem is, every outlandish idea he comes up with keeps coming true! 

The final moments are terribly bleak yet oddly fitting with what has come before and testament to the over-riding vision of the series sole writer. Davies wrote over the top characters and some of the situations could even be deemed as farcical, but every single episode was wonderfully enjoyable. Again this was one of those shows which I recorded off the TV onto video tape and watched repeatedly - in fact I don't think I found anything else quite as special outside of the SF and Fantasy genres until Alan Bleasdale's "G.B.H" in 1991.

1992 brought a sequel TV movie "A Very Polish Practice". While it was nice to see Stephen Daker and Greta and mad Bob Buzzard once more, outside of the university setting something was missing. and I've no real desire to watch it again, even with a supporting actors of the calibre of Alfred Molina. I'll stick with the twelve episodes of mad brilliance 


Honourable mentions:
  • Comic Relief Utterly Utterly Live - The first (and some would say the best) "Comic Relief" event was a stage show in the style of the Amnesty International "Secret Policeman's Ball" at the Shaftsbury Theatre on three consecutive nights in early April 1986. Featuring a host of alternative comedians, celebrities and musical stars it was hugely popular, especially as the four stars of the BBC's "The Young Ones" performed their number one single "Living Doll" alongside the one and only Cliff Richard. Other highlights included Lenny Henry grinding against a poor audience member as Theophilus P, Wilderbeest, Ben Elton doing his "Train" set and for me, the gorgeous Kate Bush singing "Do Bears Shhhh... In The Woods" with Rowan Atkinson.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns - Frank Miller's alternate-world take on a much older, embittered Bruce Wayne and his return to the role that he has abandoned after the death of Robin. The world is a more violent frightening place, Superman has become a pawn of the government. and mutant gangs are on the rampage. Credited for ushering in the "dark" age of comic books and influencing a generation of new writers, Miller's most famous work is a politically-charged read that still stands up today (the various sequels less so...), My personal memory is being in my local comic shop as that week's new releases were un-boxed and we all gazed in wonder at this new "prestige " format with its square binding and glossy pages. It was the start of a new age of graphic storytelling, and I was there at the beginning.

  • Crossroads - Not the terrible ITV soap opera, but the musical drama starring former "Karate Kid" Ralph Macchio. The film was inspired by blues guitar pioneer Robert Johnson, specifically the legend that he sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in order to play better than anyone else - and also that there was a "missing song" that no-one had ever discovered. It's not the world's greatest story - at the core it's still the tale of a young man's relationship with an older montor (much like Macchio's previous successes) - but the performances and the "supernatural" elements help keep it fresh and watchable. What has mainly kept it alive in my memory though is the music. I've always been a fan of blues and talented artists such as Johnson, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters - right up to more modern day players such as Eric Clapton or Chris Rea. In "Crossroads" the score comes from accomplished guitarist Ry Cooder and it's just wonderful. The final duelling guitars scene with a performance from Steve Vai is also worthy of particular praise. I seem to have a liking for musical takes on the "battle with the devil" motif, as two other guilty pleasures are 1979's "The Devil Went Down To Georgia" by the Charles Daniels Band and 1975's "Spanish Train" by Chris de Burgh (hey - don't judge til you've heard it...)
  • Dice Man - A short-lived spin-off from 2000 AD that aped the "Fighting Fantasy" choose-your-own-adventure stories but in comic strip form. Readers had to jump between pages and panels dependant on decisions they made from the multiple choice options - either progressing through the adventure or dying a horrible death. Featuring 2000 AD stalwarts such as Judge Dredd, Nemesis and Slaine plus original characters, I loved it mainly due to the simply stunning artwork from the likes of Bryan Talbot, Kev O' Neill, Steve Dillon, David Lloyd and others.

  • Biggles : Adventures In Time - Take a World War I flying ace who started in nearly 100 novels and stories. Mix in a dash of "Raiders of the Lost Ark". Add a large pinch of "Back to the Future" or even 1979s "Time After Time". What you get is this hodge-podge of a movie which if I'm honest is not the greatest thing in the world but still has a big place in my affections. Salesman Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White) falls through time to 1917 and inadvertently saves the life of pilot James Bigglesworth (Neil Dickinson). The pair then find themselves flung backwards and forwards in time whenever the other is in danger - all the while trying to stop the Germans changing the course of history. Chiefly remembered now as being the last ever screen appearance by Peter Cushing, it's a great little movie. Just overlook the holes and go with the flow. A very 80s theme song and OTT soundtrack from "Yes" frontman Jon Anderson too. Dickinson even ended up reprising his performance as Biggles (sort of) in the Pet Shop Boys 1987 musical "It Couldn't Happen Here", while amongst many other things, Hyde-White went on to play Mr. Fantastic in Roger Corman's unreleased version of "The Fantastic Four".


  • Watchmen - It's undeniably Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's masterpiece and the comic book that changed the face of the industry forever (some would say not for the better) - so much so that even now it''s being used as a springboard for DC's latest relaunch. If you want to show non comics readers that the medium can be so much more than just superhero slug-fests, don't show them this. There are a hundred and one other excellent titles out there. To fully appreciate "Watchmen" I think you need to have at least some understanding of the comics form, because as well as a significant piece of literature and a logical extension of the "what if superheroes were real" concept, it's also a love letter to the way comics work. At the time of original publication I admit to being addicted to the series and bought every version and piece of merchandise going (yes even the smiley face watch) The "squid " ending is still poor though.



Sunday, May 14, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 19 - 1985

An absolute cornucopia of different things captured my interest in this year, so this is going to be lots of little look-backs rather than one big one. It was always going to be a comic in the top spot, but with so many excellent and innovative titles published, which one to choose?...

1985:

The trivia:
  • Rome and Carthage officially ended the Third Punic War between the two cities in 1985, when the mayors signed a peace treaty. it had been running for over 2,000 years.
  • Toy manufacturer Matell introduced a new character to the He-Man universe with an unusual power. Stinkor was essentially a humanoid skunk with the ability to release a toxic odour from his body that immobilised his foes. Matell mixed patchouli oil in with the plastic mold to give the toy a unique aroma...
  • In the Culinan Premier Mine near Praetoria, South Africa, miners found the worlds largest diamond weighing 755.5 carats. The "Golden Jubilee Diamond" cut from it (545.67 carats) is currently estimated to be worth around US$ 12 million.

The memory:

Moonshadow

Marvel's 'Epic' line had produced some excellent creator-owned titles already, particularly "Dreadstar" and "Coyote" - but the comics world had never seen anything like "Moonshadow" before. I'd never seen anything like this before. The titular character is the child of a hippie named Sunflower and a grinning ball of light (which kidnapped her from Earth). After growing up in an alien zoo, Moonshadow is thrust out into the big bad universe with only his mother, his cat and a faceless hairy sex obsessed creature called Ira for company.

Moonshadow stumbles about encountering love, death, lust, horror, adventure and more death - all the while searching for enlightenment and a sense of belonging. It's a coming of age tale where the universe is strange and unpredictable but also full of wonder. Jon J Muth’s watercolour artwork is incredible and turned him into a superstar. The ethereal work combined with J.M. DeMatteis’ haunting, lyrical, literature infused script transforms "Moonshadow" into something frankly astonishing. 

The last few issues of the 12 part series took forever to come out, and the ending was somewhat confusing (at the time anyway) but I loved every minute of the journey. It resonated with me in a very special way and made me into a life-long fan of both men's work. It was also the first comic where I bought the individual issues *and* the collected edition, just so I could have three new pages to enjoy. A sequel "Farewell, Moonshadow" followed many years later. More of a prose novel with illustrations, it's still a moving, heartfelt tale, and shows that no matter what occurs in life, the journey to understanding never truly comes to an end


Honourable mentions:
  • No Surrender - a one-off comedy drama by "Boys From The Blackstuff" author Alan Bleasdale, starring Michael Angelis as the manager of a run-down social club in Liverpool. He realises that the previous owner has not only booked two opposing groups of Irish Catholic and Protestant pensioners on New Year's Eve, but also a homosexual comedian, a useless punk rock band, and a magician with stage fright on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Plus a fancy dress competition with no prize. Typical Bleasdale, this is darkly comic stuff with a heart of gold and a twist of surreal anarchy, and deserves to sit alongside his other classics. I had it on VHS recorded from the TV for years, but I wasn't able to get a DVD copy until 2011.


  • Real Genius - One of a number of teen science fiction films around at the time, "Real Genius" is not as well remembered as "Weird Science" but I'd argue that it's actually a lot funnier. It helps to have a barnstorming performance from a young Val Kilmer as Chris Knight, the genius university slacker tasked with secretly creating the power source for a laser super-weapon for the CIA - so his university professor can take it easy and steal the glory (and the project funding to renovate his house). There is the usual group of oddballs rounding out the cast - the 15 year old genius, the kooky but sweet girl, the bullying arse-licking toady, etc, etc. But the film is so much more than the usual college comedies that forever follow in the wake of "Animal House". These "nerds" are not in competition with the "jocks". Sure they might be unlucky in love and have similar neuroses and problems, but they are comfortable being who they are and enjoy life - even if that is turning the dorm corridors into an ice rink or (at Chris Knight's insistence) holding "mutant" hamster races or Madame Curie lookalike contests. It also helps that the film might be one of the most quotable on the planet, 90% coming from Kilmer. Even today I find myself referring to the need to do something as a "moral imperative"...


  • Scout - I was already a fan of Tim Truman's art on First Comics "Grimjack" and his separate graphic novel "Time Beavers", but this series allowed him to write for the first time. It's a dystopian 1999 and the U.S.A. has collapsed both economically (due to embargoes by other nations) and ecologically - most of the country is a barren wasteland.  Enter Native American Apache Emmanuel Santana (Army Ranger codename: Scout). He sees what is really happening - the President is an evil presence aided by four monsters out of Apache legend - and Scout is tasked by his spirit guide with killing them. But are they real, or is he just a hallucinating terrorist?, "Scout" drew on Truman's love for Native American culture and the western genre and is full of gritty action, mysticism and subtle commentary on the geopolitical fears of the day. It also featured a lot of blues music, so much so that issue sixteen came with a free flexi-disc (remember those?) with a two song "soundtrack". Truman even produced a full LP alongside his band "The Dixie Pistols" which contained a "Scout" mini-comic detailing some of the events after the end of the first 24-issue series. I still have both. Over time the storyline expanded further and two bridging mini-series and a second volume, "Scout:War Shaman" followed. I must get the issues out of storage and re-read them sometime soon.
  • Young Sherlock Holmes -  Yes it's cheesy and Americanised and tries to turn the world's greatest detective into Indiana Jones, but I still have a soft spot for this film. Part of it is the fun central performance from Nicholas Rowe and part comes comes from spotting the nods to Conan Doyle's work. A guilty pleasure perhaps.
  • Crisis On Infinite Earths - Every character in the DC pantheon in one multiverse-shattering epic! What's not to love? This was personally the culmination of the first phase of my love for DC Comics and their characters, which I had been exposed to gradually over the previous few years, and succeeded in getting me to pick even more titles than before. It's career-defining work from Marv Wolfman and George Perez and  the impact it has had down the decades is incredible. I loved it at the time, even though I never had an issue with the multiple Earth's idea anyway.
  • Looking back now I have a slightly different opinion. Whatever DC may have gained from "Crisis" and despite their multiple revisionist attempts over subsequent decades, I think they lost more than they gained, particularly in terms of the great legacy of the DC Universe. I am of the opinion that having a proper Earth-2 with an older Superman, a dead Batman, the All-Star Squadron fighting in WWII and the JSA growing old and giving way to Infinity Inc would still work and is the way to go. To be honest I wish they would stop trying to "fix" things and just stick to one continuity. They have just made their long history even more complicated than the perceived problem that created the need for a "crisis" in the first place. Still a great comic book event though.
  • Back To The Future - Just perfect in almost every conceivable way. Definitely up there as one of my favourite films of all time and the sequels aren't too shabby either. Thanks to the stewardship of Bob Gale and Robert Zemekis, we will never see a crass reboot or reimagining to sully the legacy, at least in their lifetimes.
  • Longshot - Now more widely known as a member one of the endless iterations of "X-Men" teams, the artificially created humanoid with probability altering powers first appeared in his own six issue mini-series. It's a great story with a ton of unique characters, but the real draw was the debut of Arthur Adams on art duties. I'd never encountered anything like his attention to minute detail - the attractive women, the original looking aliens - his work practically shines off the page. Instantly recognisable, his name on a project means that it's a guaranteed must-buy as far as I am concerned.
  • Starquake / Nodes of Yesod - Two ZX Spectrum games with a similar feel, but which were still so addictive that I played them for hours on end. Both feature a protagonist searching through hundreds of screens of caves and tunnels for various objects to either combine together or complete a quest. Certain objects (access cards or a rock-chewing mole) give access to other parts of the map. A vast array of alien lifeforms while either zap your health or cause you to bounce around. In concept both were variations on "Underwurlde" from gaming legends "Ultimate Play The Game", but with enough of a unique spin to still be great games in their own right. Amazingly I now have a version of "Nodes of Yesod" on my iPhone!
Starquake

Nodes of Yesod
  • Tales of the Beanworld - Billed as "A most peculiar comic book experience", there is nothing else quite like Larry Marder's mythological, ecological fantasy adventure. It's a singular vision which has been published only sporadically over the last thirty years. I can't say I totally understood it on first reading back in the 80s, but the experience of reading something utterly unique means that it has stuck in my memory longer than many other titles of the period. Annoyingly, a new collection of stories snuck out in 2009 (with a fourth volume due in mid-2017) and I missed it completely. It's long out of print and commands a hefty price now, so I guess I'll have to satisfy myself with the digital edition - but my collectors gene  would still love a complete set of hardcovers.
  • Brazil - Terry Gilliam's masterpiece and a film which is probably even more relevant in today's world than it was back in 1985. A science fiction satire which did a version of "steampunk" years before anyone else, it has pitch black humour and one of the darkest endings ever - yet is still full of wonderful absurdities and memorable characters. I love to watch it again and again. 
  • Miracleman - After the demise of Warrior magazine, Eclipse comics picked up the rights to publish "Marvelman", now renamed to avoid any lawsuits from that other publisher. At the time the continuation of the story after the reprints was *the* big thing, but I couldn't help but be disappointed by the switch from the sublime Alan Davis art to the less than stellar Chuck Beckum. Thankfully his stay was brief. As good as the subsequent issues are - and trust me they are *very* good, I kind of wish that it had ended at issue 16 and been just another entry in Moore's body of work. The Gaiman follow up's were good for sure, but the decades long wait for a conclusion and the lack of a decent collection (until recently) just lent the whole thing a historical weight that it can never live up to. Moore and Gaiman both went on to do better things and frankly I'm really not that bothered if we never see the planned ending. Heretical I know.

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 18 - 1984

"Tuesday evening, after tea and compulsory prayers, the last mouse on Earth tried to hide from mankind inside the machine"...

1984:

The trivia:
  • Walt Disney's Donald Duck had become part of the U.S. army war effort back in 1942 in the cartoon "Donald Gets Drafted". He then appeared in a number of short features during World War II, including "Commando Duck" where he was parachuted in to the Pacific Theatre to fight against the Japanese. However he never officially left the army, so by his fiftieth birthday in 1984 - when he had been serving for over forty years - the military arranged a full parade and sent a  four star general to simultaneously promote Donald to "Buck Sergeant" and grant him official retirement.
  • Scientist, astronomer and personal hero Carl Sagan shared a jail cell with Martin Sheen when the pair (and others) climbed over a chain-link fence at the Nevada Test Site to protest at the United States continued development of nuclear weapons.
  • In July of 1984 President Ronald Reagan called ice cream "a nutritious and wholesome food" and established National Ice Cream Month. A man after my own heart.

The memory:

Deus Ex Machina

By 1984, the Sinclair ZX Spectrum was *the* home computer of choice (at least in the UK). Yes it only had 48K memory and could only display 256 colours, but as I have mentioned previously, those limitations helped produce some of the most innovative and ground breaking games ever made. Anyone and everyone could become a programmer, create a software company and enter the big time with a release that took the enthusiastic community by storm. Games could be (and frequently were) about anything.

At the forefront of this innovation was "Automata UK". Established in 1977 as one of, if not the first ever British video games company, It was run by the guru's guru Mel Croucher (Robert Rankin's Hugo Rune has nothing on this guy), aided by his long time collaborator and programmer Christian Penfold. Automata were pioneers in self-distributed, resolutely non-violent games on the black and white ZX-81. However it was with the release of "PiMania" in 1982 that they really took off.

An electronic take of the famous "Masquerade" book from the late 70s by Kit Williams, "PiMania" was billed as the first ever real life treasure hunt computer game. Hidden somewhere in the UK was a golden sundial worth £6,000 - yours if you could figure out the incredibly cryptic clues hidden within the game. A surreal text and graphics adventure full of lateral thinking puzzles and starring Piman, the company's pink, huge-nosed  mascot , it was launched in a flurry of publicity on several different platforms but it's fair to say that the ZX Spectrum version was the most popular. 



Making the most of the fact that the "PiMania"was loaded from a cassette tape, Automata UK bundled it with a B-side - a bizarre yet hilarious song of the same name with music and lyrics by Croucher which sounded like it was composed with a Bon Tempi organ and a kazoo. He was like an 8-bit Frank Zappa or Neil Innes. I loved it.

A second prize game followed in 1983 - "My Name Is Uncle Groucho, You Win A Fat Cigar" - along with another song. By now Automata UK had taking over the back page of "Popular Computing Weekly" (PCW). Starting off as standard if anarchic adverts, the page then began to feature the comic strip adventures of Piman and his cast of supporting characters drawn by the brilliant Robin Evans. Gradually over the months the strip took over and for many (like me) it was the main reason we brought the mostly text based magazine. The team also became regular fixtures at the Alexandra Palace computer fairs, holding court from a large stand with Croucher as Uncle Groucho and Penfold cavorting round in his frankly creepy looking pink Piman costume. It was part sales pitch, part entertainment show and the crowds lapped it up.



I guess that if Croucher was a visionary leader and innovator, you could say that my brother, friends and I were his"acolytes". We had become quite friendly with him and were warmly welcomed when we turned up at the 'Ally Pally' Microfairs. At one point my brother created a stuffed soft toy version of Piman, and for several years it sat in the front window of the Automata UK shop in Portsmouth like some deformed hairless Bagpuss. There's a picture of it somewhere on the web that I know I've seen, but can't seem to find at the moment.

Branching out using other external programmers, Automata UK released a whole series of "Pi" themed games, each with their own musical b-sides. A full album compilation of the expanding catalogue were produced on cassette, and I still have it (and the sequel) to this day. Songs such as "Donkey Hotay","Leader of the Pac" and "Piballed Blues"  became our soundtrack as we indulged in long hours of gameplay.



Then in 1984 via the PCW back page, the company announced that they would be producing a game unlike any other - their magnum opus - "Deus Ex Machina". It was Crouchers' personal project in conjunction with wunderkind programmer Andrew Stagg  - the culmination of his journey to produce a unique integrated multimedia blend of music, graphics and gaming, pushing the boundaries of the humble ZX Spectrum to their limit. Along with the game cassette would come a complete synchronised musical sound-track featuring voice-overs and singing from Croucher, along with Donna Bailey, Ian "Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick" Dury, comedian Frankie Howerd, and most excitingly, former "Doctor Who" Jon Pertwee. 

Sold for the price of £15 (high for the time, when most games were between £5 and £10), this was not so much a game as an event, and was trumpeted as being the next big thing - as important as the first graphical adventure game of "The Hobbit" that had defined the ZX Spectrum's early years. Naturally when it was launched we all went along to the next Microfair and shook Mel by the hand, and parted with our cash, taking home the huge plastic case with it's double cassettes, poster and complete set of lyrics. We couldn't wait to get home and start the adventure.


Inserting the first side of the game into our trusty tape players (with the volume set *just right* so that we would not get the dreaded "Tape Loading Error") we watched as the introductory graphics appeared complete with 8-bit representations of the key performers (unfortunately Mr. Pertwee's name was spelt wrong as "John", which was slightly amusing. (It was corrected for the Commodore 64 version). Then having begun to listen to side one of the music tape, we were kindly told by the Third Doctor "I want you to pause after I count you down and recommence playing at the screens request...". A similar countdown was initiated on screen. This insured that the soundtrack was (mostly) in sync with the graphics on screen. Thus the story begun...

In a Big Brother-esque 1994, players had to take part in the epic life story of an accidentally created artificial life form and guide it from birth to death via a series of connected mini-games, loosely based on Shakespeare's 'Seven Ages Of Man'. Pertwee was the narrator and guide, Howerd played the part of the authoritarian Defect Police - out to stop the creature -  and Dury the initial sperm that becomes the lifeform.(there's nothing quite like hearing Ian Dury uttering the immortal line "Wotcha cock! I'm a fertilising agent...my brothers are all wriggly.") Each of the stages required you to perform some kind of action to move yourself (the 'accident') through your life cycle and to keep your percentage score (the "degree of ideal entity") as high as possible. Success raised the score but mistakes cost you percentage points.Lets take a detailed look at the main sequences...

You begin by helping the machine create a baby through a series of repeated cursor touches - manipulating DNA helix's and keeping them spinning in the void, nurturing the early cells and allowing the machine to steal an egg before bringing it together with a spermatozoa  All the while the Defect Police are out to get you and stop the aberration before it can be born.
"At first the infant, mewling in the test tube's neck..."

The embryo lives. You protect it by keeping the outer cocoon intact before the baby is released spinning from the Incubator.The eyes of the Defect Police are watching and capture is unavoidable, but as it has been born with powers of telepathy and telekinesis, you can help this new life deflect the physic probes.

"Then the whining school child, with cassette and shining morning face. Creeping like a snail unwittingly to databank..."

This imprisoned spinning form grows from child into man as the voice of Donna Bailey sings. Using it's mental powers the defect absorbs information and learns. To start with it is innocent and loving but as time goes on it is corrupted and becomes cruel and hurtful. Part one end as an electronic eye sheds a single tear.

"And then the lover, sighing like a furnace, with a woeful video made to their lover's hologram"

As part two begins, the voice of Jon Pertwee has changed. Now it is authoritative and commanding. The noise of battle echoes in the background of the Overlevels. It's time for war. The fully grown lifeform follows the orders of the Defect Police and runs across a desolate landscape. Players have to take control by jumping over chasms and deflecting weapons and walls of fire. The soundtrack to this element brings to the fore Croucher's strong personal views about the evil of violent computer games. Ian Dury and Frankie Howerd verbally spar in rhyme as another battle ensues for the conscience of the soldier. Does you blindly follow orders or resist and rise up against your oppressors?
"Then a soldier, full of strange oaths. Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking hi-score, even in the laser's mouth"

Ultimately the Defect Police are defeated and you now rules the Overlevels. But life goes on and as you becomes older and more corpulent, you must make the right decisions by jumping over the good things and stamping evil out underfoot. Every false move means a part of the empire collapses in the distance and the Machine begins to regret ever having made you.
"And then the Justice, in fair round belly and eyes severe and clothes of format cut, full of wise words and machine code..."

As old age approaches and life reaches it's sunset, all the player can do is trace the line of the heartbeat and try and disperse the clots that float through your bloodstream...

"The Sixth Age shifts into the lean and skippered pantaloon..."

Life ends and the Machine takes you home. But the end is the beginning . Your life is expressed as a percentage score. Imagine if this was nothing but an electronic game, and you could begin your little life all over again...

"Last scene of all, the ends this strange eventful history is Second Childishness and mere oblivion. Without keyboard, without monitor, without power supply"

Okay, so clearly looking back now from our modern shiny CGI, 1080p, photo realistic graphics world, that all looks incredibly basic and probably quite dull - and yes I'll admit that it's not the most rewarding game to play. But the point is that the player interaction wasn't the thing  - it was the truly original combination of electronic music, poetry, dystopian lyrics and unusual visuals. "Deus Ex Machina" was as much avant garde  / prog rock concept album art installation as game - something you experienced as well as participated in. The soundtrack could be listened to in it's own right - in fact it was never off my Walkman - and was full of great performances, humour and subtle digs at the establishment.

Donna Bailey is a revelation and both Dury and Howerd perform their parts well. But as the Storyteller, Pertwee really seems to get into the spirit of things and enjoy himself (this is even after he had apparently fallen off his motorcycle on the way to the recording studio!). He and Croucher became good friends from this project and later released a comedy quiz book together.

I make no secret of the fact that I am very biased in favour of Mel Croucher's output and his extraordinary vision. The title of this very blog is named in honour of some of his magazine columns. However as much as I loved "Deus Ex Machina", it failed terribly. It gathered good reviews and won an industry award as program of the year, but sales were awful. Part of this is due to the fact that many casual gamers just didn't "get" it, having been conditioned on a diet of "Jet Set Willy" and "Knightlore" which were technically more polished and more playable - and they were being asked to pay £15 for an hour or so's "experience" - far higher than they could buy games for from WH Smith.

But more importantly Automata UK were sadly a victim of the success of the UK gaming industry. With titles being more and more sold in high street stores as retailers wanted a piece of the mail-order / Microfair turnover, large distribution companies got in on the act and *they* got to set the price points and choose which titles were allowed onto shelves. As a little company trying to take their puck rock attitude and buck the trend, Mel and Co were doomed to fail.

Automata UK never really recovered from the losses of "Deus Ex Machina" and Croucher walked away in 1985. The UK computer industry had probably disillusioned him, but it was a sad loss. It would be years before he stepped back into the arena in any major way - although he did write dozens of columns for industry magazines. He also managed a number of media companies with both corporate and celebrity clients. But in 2012, he launched a new version of the company "Automata Source Ltd" and successfully crowd-funded "Deus Ex Machina 2" featuring the voice of the legendary Christopher Lee. Even thirty plus years later Mel is still innovating, still creating and still producing great music. This post is dedicated to him, with huge thanks for the years of fun and laughter.



Honourable mentions:
  • CRASH - no post relating to the ZX Spectrum can pass without mentioning the most popular computing magazine of the day - at one point selling over 100,000 copies a month. CRASH was known for the distinctive cover art by Oliver Frey, who also contributed to the "Terminal Man " comic strip inside. Full of irrerervant news, reviews, playing tips and cheats, it developed a unique style and became the go-to source if you wanted to know anything about Spectrum games. I had almost every issue. The physical copies are all long gone of course but thankfully they are now available online. CRASH deserves a much more in depth look from me. One day...
  • Sherlock Holmes - The definitive period version of the world-famous detective. Benedict Cumberbatch may have won tons of awards but for many Jeremy Brett *is* Holmes in a way that has not been bettered before or since. Across 36 episodes and 5 feature length specials, Brett and his two Watson's (David Burke for series 1 and Edward Hardwicke thereafter) starred in the most faithful adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories - praised for their high production values and attention to detail. I had become a fan of the original adventures when I read the complete works a few years earlier and my whole family never missed an episode. It still stands up today as a high watermark in television drama.
  • The Saga of the Swamp Thing - Okay, so this title had been running since 1982 and featured some sterling work from writer Martin Pasko and various artists, but we all know that it was when Alan Moore took over from issue 20 (and particularly #21's "The Anatomy Lesson") that everything moved onto a whole new level. Moore was relatively unknown in the U.S. and was given free rein to revamp the title to save it from cancellation. The rest is comic book history. There have been millions of words written about the importance of Moore's stint on the title so I don't intend to repeat them here, but it did usher in a new maturity for mainstream comics and paved the way for the "Vertigo" imprint. I'm slightly ashamed to say that I didn't start picking up the comic until issue 28 on the strong recommendation from my local comic shop owner and had to scrabble around for many months finding the back issues as prices started to soar.
  • Robin of Sherwood - Written by Richard "Kip" Carpenter, whose work I had previously enjoyed on "Catweazle" and "Dick Turpin", this is another example of a TV interpretation  which has yet to be bettered. Combing authentic production design and real locations (so you felt that the outlaws really did live in a forest) with genuine history and elements of pagan myths, I lapped up this series as it appealed to my love of both classical heroes and fantasy. Michael Praed was a perfect Robin of Loxley and his not so merry men were also well cast. The addition of Nasir the Saracen has had such an influence that it now seems to have always been part of the legend. However let's not talk about season three. As far as I am concerned Robin dies at the end of "The Greatest Enemy"...
  • Mage: The Hero Discovered - The first part of writer / artist Matt Wagner's epic trilogy of the life of Kevin Matchstick, wielder of an enchanted baseball bat that turns out to be Excalibur. Part examination of the power of myth, part autobiographical allegory and all whole lot of fun, I loved the lush artwork and somewhat humorous take on the Arthurian legend (not to mention the triple gatefold panorama in the final issue). It took until 1997 for the second chapter "The Hero Defined" to appear and the final part, "The Hero Denied" will at last be released in July 2017. It will undoubtedly be worth the wait and I intend to re-read the whole series before then. Oh and that black T-shirt with the white lightning bolt that Kevin Matchstick wears? I had one of those and wore it proudly for years.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood - If one band came to define the mid-80s for me it was "Frankie". Hugely successful  - especially after lead single "Relax" was banned by the BBC leading to it hitting the number one spot for five weeks - hugely influential, and more than a little racy, the provocative nature of their singles and first album meant that the country (and I) became obsessed with everything they released. "Frankie Says..." T-shirts were everywhere. They became only the second act in the history of the UK charts to reach number one with their first three singles. Even now I still think that "Two Tribes" (and it's multiple remixes) is one of the best records ever made. It became a ritual to go to my local "Golden Disc" record shop every Thursday lunchtime to pick up the latest 12", and when the double album "Welcome To The Pleasuredome" (with a cover you  really couldn't show your mother) was first on sale, the queue was out the door. I bought everything in every format including the rare picture discs and trust me, those are one of the few pieces of vinyl I'll never throw out. Alas the follow up album " Liverpool" was a disappointment (I personally liked "Rage Hard") and by 1987 after internal disputes the band was no more. A real shame.

  • There are a couple of other comic books which were very important to me that were released in 1984. However I have lengthy posts in the "Collector's Dream" segment *almost* ready to go on these so I'll publish them as soon as I can as companion pieces to this set of memories. Watch this space...

Thursday, May 04, 2017

I Saw Elvis In A Potato Chip Once 12 - The X-Files 1.12 - Fire

I should be excited at another script from creator and show-runner Chris Carter - but unfortunately the quality is taking a real nosedive...

The X-Files 1.12 - Fire

U.S. culture is everywhere. Through TV shows, films and the export of  American brands and stores, people the world over feel that they have a good handle on the basics of the United States way of life. When other countries come to make shows set in the U.S.A, there is a pretty reasonable chance that they will get most of the core details right. Unfortunately it doesn't necessarily mean that the exchange works the other way. American media has a pretty terrible record for portraying non domestic cultures with broad strokes and varying degrees of stereotype. It may be better in the 21st century, back back in the 1990s...oh boy.



Such is the case with this weeks episode of the mis-adventures of Mulder and Scully. Despite featuring not one but two British actors, it's full of the most awful cliched ideas about the kind of people that make up this island I call home. If it's not Amanda Pays hamming it up as Mulder's ex-girlfriend who seemingly has never gotten over the quick fumble they had in a graveyard ten years ago, it's a very young Mark Sheppard trying on a series of ever more desperate accents like some maniacal Dick van Dyke tribute act. Trust me, the so called aristocracy do not talk like that, or play football in their blazers or have three gardeners to every ten square feet - and don't get me started on the groan-inducing "Top o' the mornin' to ya". Residents of Eire must have put their feet through the screen at that point. As for naming the villain "Cecil"? There hasn't been a child with that first name in decades - and "L'Ively"? Sheer nonsense.

Since it's ostensibly a British case, we get the obligatory reference to Sherlock Holmes, but this is far from a "three pipe problem". The plot is so obvious and straight line that a child could work it out. The villain of the piece has no motivation. There is no explanation for his "talent". He just appears, sets fire to stuff (and himself) and shuffles off the screen presumably never to be heard of again. What was the point?  Exactly why did he hate the English nobs so much? There was a throwaway line about satanism in Bath, but it has no real context or connection to our twisted firestarter.

It's not as if he was even a particularly cunning arsonist. He mixes paint with rocket fuel, which surely must stink to high heaven. Lights multiple cigarettes near said accelerant. Goes around setting fire to drinking establishments for totally no reason - and couldn't make his plans any more obvious if he tried. Maybe that's what Carter was going for - the insane cackling telekinetic pyromaniac that can't be reasoned with - but surely it could have been done more intelligently than this? Even Cecil's "end" is pathetic, with Mark comically flailing around in the garden for a couple of minutes waiting for the stunt man to take over. He's so much better than this crap, especially that final cheesy line. It's almost worthy of  "Batman And Robin"...

The supposed reveals about Mulder's Oxford shenanigans with Phoebe and his fear of fire are not so much weaved into the plot as crammed in with a crowbar. The first is only there to kick start the plot and provide some unneeded emotional conflict and the second is just to give Mulder something to overcome. You just know that neither will be mentioned ever again.

There are two saving graces in all this mess. One is the FBI arson expert, who was so wonderfully eccentric and obviously in love with his subject, that I half expected him to lick his projector screen. The other is Gillian Anderson who acts her socks off against Mulder the moonfaced puppy and Phoebe and her hideous floral dresses. Scully is the only one who comes out with any dignity.

Other thoughts and facts:
  • At first I thought the subject of this weeks episode was going to be one of my favourites - Spontaneous Human Combustion. Then I thought we would get a story concerning someone that can skilfully manipulate fire. Nope.
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is not buried in Windlesham, Surrey. He was originally interred at his home in Crowborough, but about 60 years ago was moved to the graveyard of All Saints' Church in Minstead, near another family residence. However, Windlesham has been graced by such luminaries as Queen guitarist Brian May, actor Brian Blessed and golfer Nick Faldo, 
  • There is an incredibly weird and legthy shot in this episode of Mulder's bare feet while he talks to Scully in an adjoining hotel room chair. What was the director thinking?
  • Mulder says that when he was confronted by the fire in the hotel he "'hared out". What does that even mean? It's not a phrase I have ever come across before except in the context of getting away from somewhere very swiftly - which is exactly what Mulder *didn't* do.
  • He's also terrible at putting out the fire in the main room of the house. Waving a blanket at it would have only fanned the flames higher or at the very least caused his piece of cloth to catch alight. That's not fear of fire, just idiocy.
Conclusion: Just awful.

Monday, May 01, 2017

Random Ravings 15 - Questionable Characters

I was a bit late to the party on this one...

Line of Duty series 1 to 3

I can't watch everything. In this modern era there are too many TV shows. Too many choices. So I have to pick and choose my viewing according to personal genre interests, catching a trailer that piques my interest, or word of mouth from friends, family or the minimal number of websites that I trust. But the question still is - how the hell did I miss "Line of Duty" on first transmission?


It's only because of the publicity and glowing recommendations regarding series 4 that I became aware that the show existed at all. Looking back, these same websites had reviewed and commented on all seventeen previous episodes, but it was like I had experienced a televisual blindspot, not seeing what was right in front of me. Perhaps I had been too focused on other things like "Doctor Who" or something like that, and had dismissed it as 'just another police procedural'. The thing is I *do* like police  / detective dramas. I love all the incarnations of Sherlock Holmes."Luther" is one of my favourite TV shows. "Happy Valley" is another. The BBC does this kind of contained, limited-run thing better than almost anyone else in the world. I've got no excuse really.

The one thing that did make me sit up and take notice above everything else though was the name of the creator and writer - Jed Mercurio. I first came across him with the 2004-2006 medical series "Bodies" starring Max Beesley, which concerned the highs and lows of medical registrar Rob Lake as he worked in the obstetrics and gynaecology department of a major hospital. It was graphically explicit, very dark, dealt with negligence, cover-ups and frequent death - and was frankly astounding television. If Mercurio was involved my hopes were high. Looking for something new for my wife and I to share (she doesn't enjoy much of the SF  / fantasy genre television I watch) we decided to give "Line of Duty" a go, and using our streaming service, started at the beginning, not realising that this programme would soon consume our lives for the next week and a half...

The core of "Line of Duty" is the work of an elite police anti-corruption unit designated AC-12. These are the men and women who search out officers who have crossed the line and committed a crime themselves - whether it be murder, cover-ups, falsifying or with-holding evidence, taking bribes - you get the idea. Each series starts with the investigation of a specific person and shows how AC-12 build their case and the events, twists and turns that result. Sounds a pretty normal show doesn't it? The kind of thing we may have seen a hundred times before. But "Line of Duty" is far from your typical drama. Minor spoilers from this point on...


This is a series which is intricately, meticulously plotted and that excels at pulling the rug out from under your feet. Nothing is certain. The plot writhes in unexpected ways and you will be hard pressed to anticipate anything. I think I first realised this with the event at the end of part two of series one. Something happens then which makes you just go "Wow. Okay now all bets are off".  There are other similar scenes throughout the first three seasons which are just as jaw dropping (part one of the second year springs to mind) - and sometimes these surprises make you reconsider what you thought you knew about prior events or even prior runs.

But alongside the roller coaster thrill ride of action , this is also a programme that is not afraid to take it's time. Mercurio has clearly done his research and the procedural elements feel real and as plausible as if you were watching a fly-on-the-wall documentary. AC-12's interview and interrogation scenes are lengthy and detailed, with each new piece of evidence that is revealed helping to move the plot along and slotting another section of the puzzle into place. In the final extended episode of series three there are two interview sequences which are twenty minutes long - each! Forty minutes of characters sitting in a room talking and presenting details on a screen. Far from being dull, these are nail-biting, edge of your seat moments, the ebb and flow of who has the upper hand shifting between AC-12 on one side and the accused on the other. I was holding my breath, tense with anticipation. It's masterful stuff.

At it's core though "Line of Duty" is about character. None of the main leads (Martin Compton as DS Steve Arnott, Vicky McClure as DS Kate Fleming and Adrian Dunbar as Superintendent Ted Hastings) are whiter-than-white. They all make mistakes, have complicated personal lives and at times both help progress or hinder the investigations. They are real, flawed human beings. Mercurio's skill as a writer also extends to his "villains" - there are no "black hats" here, only varying shades of grey, and their motives may be in the right place even if their actions are not. In series two AC-12 investigate Detective Inspector Lindsay Denton, following the ambush of a convoy carrying someone in witness protection. As a viewer, your belief of whether she is guilty or innocent changes several times just in the one episode - let alone through the entire arc. It's a sign of quality that even the cops under scrutiny are sympathetic at times.

I'm not one for "binge-watching" of television shows, preferring to enjoy them week by week (I'm currently watching seven different shows in rotation, one a day). But with "Line of Duty", at the end of each sixty minutes my wife and I turned to each other and both said "Put the next one one, now!". It's proof of how much the brilliant drama and superb performances envelope you. Goodness knows what the anticipation must have been like after each cliffhanger on original transmission.

In just a few short days we have gorged ourselves on the first three series and are now ready for the fourth, which concluded just this weekend past. Avoiding spoilers has been hard (with a lot of swift channel changing when trailers came on) but we know it will be worth it. Thandie Newton awaits, which is doubly exciting after her bravura performance in "Westworld" recently.

I simply cannot recommend this television programme highly enough.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 17 - 1983

A single album track mixing progressive electronica with a world famous poem is my pick of the year....

1983:

The trivia:
  • Commercial peat-cutters were working in the Lindow Moss bog in Cheshire, England when they discovered a partial skull fragment with remnants of hair, soft tissue, brain matter and an eye attached.When the police launched a murder investigation, one man came forward. Long suspected of the death of his wife in 1960, Peter Reyn-Bardt thought it was her body that had been found, so confessed to the crime. When later carbon-dating testing revealed that it was actually from a body over a thousand years old, he tried to revoke his confession, but ultimately was still convicted and imprisoned.
  • Musician Frank Zappa came up with a business plan for the storage and distribution of music via file-sharing, decades before the likes's of iTunes and Spotify became a reality.
  • Sixty volumes of journals supposedly written by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler were purchased by Germany's "Stern" magazine for a huge sum, plus the rights were sold to many other publications including the UK's then prestigious "Sunday Times". After a large publicity campaign, the paper published the first extracts, only for them to immediately be confirmed as utter fakes.

The memory:

Rick Wakeman - Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

Occasionally you just hear a piece of music and something just "clicks" in your brain. After just one listen, that song or instrumental gets stuck there. It's more than an "earworm" - immediately it's lodged deep and you know that you will never ever forget it. Such was the case with the final track on Rick Wakeman's 1983 album "Cost of Living".


Wakeman had been a mainstay of legendary progressive rock band "Yes" during the 1970s and is still widely recognised as one of the best keyboard players in the world. He had branched out into his own highly successful solo projects as well, including a number of concept albums - the most well known being "Journey to the Centre of the Earth", which featured his trademark synth wizardry together with a full orchestra, choir and voiced narration. This style of combing modern electronic keyboards with the spoken word continued throughout his career, but to my mind it's never more perfectly encapsulated than when Wakeman decided to record his version of the poem "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray.

Published in 1751, the poem is a meditation on mortality, death and remembrance, evoking the spirit of the countryside as the narrator finds comfort in thinking about the lives of the locals buried in the village churchyard. It's considered one of the greatest English poems of the period because of simultaneously being accessible and memorable and yet open to different interpretations. It's also incredibly alliterative and lyrical. No wonder Wakeman chose it.

To be honest I'd never heard of it back in 1983, despite studying poetry at school (blame the Comprehensive system. I do) - so my exposure to this wonderful work and it's musical accompaniment was purely because by chance I happened to be sat watching television one Saturday evening with my parents. Genial Irish broadcaster and TV icon Terry Wogan was hosting his very popular chat show and after Tezza finished gently grilling his latest guest he turned to the camera and announced that it was time for some music. "Here's Rick Wakeman and Robert Powell". My ears immediately pricked up - not because of the bearded maestro's name, but because of his fellow performer...


I'd been a fan of Powell's ever since the landmark TV series "Jesus of Nazareth" back in 1977 where he played the title role with a startling quiet intensity. I then enjoyed his performances in "The Four Feathers" and most importantly in the starring role as Richard Hannay in the 1978 remake of the classic John Buchan adventure "The Thirty-Nine Steps" - a film I have seen many, many times. I loved Powell's distinctive voice, so here was a chance to see him perform something "live".

As Powell began speaking with the first stanza of the poem, Wakeman's music also softly followed:

"The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lee
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way
And leaves the world to darkness and to me"

Just from those four lines I felt there was already a visual sense of twilight falling and the field workers returning home after a long days toil. As the performance continued I was mesmerised - transported to another time and place and totally absorbed in the combination of words and music. But don't take my word for it - listen for yourself:

video

By the way - the shaky camera footage taken by YouTuber 'Markus Emsermann' is of the churchyard in the village of Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire where Thomas Gray is meant to have composed his famous poem.

Sure the 80s synth twiddling is a bit overblown at times and perhaps verges on drowning out the words in a couple of places - but you can't deny the power of the verse and the stirring emotions the melding of two different arts invokes. It's a brilliant piece and each performer enhances the other. It took me quite a few years to track down a copy of the album (it's one of Wakeman's least popular solo releases), but since then it's safe to say that I've listened to "Elegy" a hundred times or more and it never dulls.

Both Wakeman and Powell went on to further successes in their respective careers, and actually came together again in 1987 for the double album  "The Gospels". I accept that the keyboard wizard's particular brand of music is not to everyone's taste and that some may find his messing with a classic piece of poetry tantamount to sacrilege. That's fine - each to their own. But although I have heard other versions of Gray's most famous work, both with and without music, this is the one I keep coming back to, and I don't think it will ever lose its influence over me.

Honourable mentions:
  • American Flagg! - Often regarded as writer / artist Howard Chaykin's most important and famous work, this was one of the first titles from new independent publisher "First Comics". When  the US government relocates to Mars after a series of worldwide crises, the United States is left at the mercy of mega-corporation "The Plex". Enter former TV star Reuben Flagg, who is drafted into the Chicago branch of the Plexus Rangers militia. Discovering a web of political corruption, subliminal TV messages and plans to sterlise the population, Flagg embarks on a crusade to clean things up aided by a cast of untrustworthy characters and his best friend Raul, a talking orange tabby cat.
  • For it's first twelve issues at least, this was my absolute favourite title, way above anything else. The combination of incredible Duotone textured art, adult themes (including my first experience of sex shown in a comic), science fictional setting - and loads of political satire meant that it was unlike anything I had ever read before. After Chaykin dropped off art duties it was never quite the same, but it's rightly hailed as a highpoint of 80s comics and I own multiple versions in various formats.
  • Howard Jones - I've previously mentioned that I'd begun to be interested in synthesiser based artists such as "Yazoo", but around this time I got my own keyboard. The was mainly prompted by the appearance of Howard Zones and his particular brand of upbeat electronic pop with the debut of the aptly titled "New Song" in September 1983 followed by the album "Human's Lib". Songs such as "Pearl in the Shell", "What Is Love" and especially the slow ballad "Hide and Seek" were a constant feature of my musical life. I followed Howard's career and bought all the 12" singles and subsequent LPs for the next five years or so. Many are still sitting in a box somewhere and the covers bring back lots of happy memories. The keyboard playing never came to anything though.
  • Philip Marlowe, Private Eye - There have been countless version of Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective and this TV series from the, then fledging, HBO is not the most famous, but I'd argue that it's up there as one of the absolute best. I came to the show free from any preconceptions as I'd never read the stories or seen any of the film versions - I was just intrigued by the 1930s setting (I guess this was feeding from my growing interest in 'pulp' fiction). Powers Boothe perfectly portrays the moral, laid back sleuth who only uses violence when he absolutely has to. The pace is slow and thoughtful and although it was shown quite late at night, it became appointment viewing for me. The lack of a recent, good quality home media box set is frankly criminal. 
  • Fraggle Rock - Fun, silly and full of memorable songs this was one of those shows that my whole family sat down to watch. It's my second favourite Henson series after "The Storyteller" and for me at the time combined the best bits from "Sesame Street" (the relatable characters and giant creatures) with those from "The Muppet Show" (the songs and humour). However it did confuse the hell out of me when I saw an American version years later. Where was the Lighthouse Captain? Who was this guy called Doc? I figured it out eventually, but I still prefer the Fulton Mackay version.
  • Was (Not Was) - Born To Laugh At Tornadoes - Although I didn't discover the Was brothers and their various collaborators until the release of "Walk The Dinosaur" in 1987, this second album has ended up being my favourite. Whether it's the pop of "Betrayal", the funk of "Professor Night" or the sheer bizarre jazz sound of veteran Mel Tormé crooning when "Zaz Turned Blue", the whole album is a delight. My friend Neil became obsessed with collecting every version of  "Out Come The Freaks" (of which there are a *lot*).
  • White Gold Wielder - by Stephen Donaldson - Not the first book in a fantasy series, but the last, and one of the most anticipated - at least by this reader. It's the finale of the "Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" - the exceptional story of the bitter, cynical leper who is transported to the fantasy setting of "The Land" and finds himself cast into the unwanted role of a major combatant in the ongoing battle against "Lord Foul the Despiser" through the use of the wild magic of his white gold wedding ring. Although it has some conceptual similarities to Tolkien's masterwork, Donaldson's character is far more of an anti-hero, often committing terrible acts as he rails against what he believes to be nothing more than a lucid dream. Over the course of the two trilogies Covenant experiences catastrophic, life changing events and battles with internal and external struggles. Ultimately he is redeemed and wins an unexpected victory, but the sacrifices both personally and to those he has come to care for are earth shattering.
  • Donaldson's love of language and esoteric description sometime's mean his prose verges on the purple - and his protagonists are often unlikeable. However the power of the story, the imagination on show and the deep themes being explored win through, and the final novel is a wonderful drawing together of the various threads and a fitting conclusion to this most unusual of heroes. I read and re-read all the books many times and ultimately it influenced me enough that when the time came, I got my own white gold wedding ring. Donaldson penned a four volume "Last Chronicles" between 2004 and 2013, but although I was initially excited (so much so that I went and met the author and got the first book signed), I found that as time went on the series turned out to be a journey too far, contained the worst excesses of his authorial "tics" and sadly was very disappointing and delivered a conclusion that I was far from happy with. I prefer to think that the series ended properly with "White Gold Wielder".
  • Blackadder -  Rowan Atkinson's best character (even if Mr. Bean has been more successful worldwide). In defiance of popular opinion, I consider "Blackadder II" to be the greatest and the funniest - after all, how can you go wrong with a woman in disguise called "Bob", Rik Mayall as Lord Flashheart (Woof!) and the incomparable Tom Baker as Captain Redbeard Rum ("You have a woman's legs, my lord! I'll wager that those are legs that have never been...",etc, etc")
  • Jon Sable, Freelance - Another First Comics title (I bought everything they published at one point). This time it's the ripped-from-the-headlines adventures of a bounty hunter and mercenary for hire, who makes money on the side as a children's author. Creator Mike Grell was familiar to me from a few issues of "Warlord" and "Legion of Superheroes" that I caught glimpses of, but here his work reached a new level of sophistication, mixing realistic characters with engaging action - split between the streets of New York and the plains of Africa. I adored his artwork and writing equally. Nowadays he's probably more famous for his lengthy run on "Green Arrow", but it was here that his gritty style developed. The individual issues, the IDW trades and the two excellent follow up mini-series deserve to be in everyone's collection.

The Colour of Magic - What superlatives can I write about the genius of Sir Terence of Pratchett that haven't been said before? (beyond the brief post here that I wrote when he died in 2015) The Discworld begins here, and although it's by no means his best book (being more of a parody of SF and fantasy tropes), the building blocks of the publishing phenomenon to come are all here. I clearly remember picking up this book from my local WH Smith and marvelling at the cover by the great Josh Kirby, who became synonymous with comic fantasy novels for many years. Sam Vimes is my favourite Discworld lead (harking back to Philip Marlowe perhaps?) but I have always had a soft spot for Rincewind. Without him we would not have had the Luggage, or the Librarian or a host of other memorable characters. My shelves are full of Terry's books and they have brought me over thirty years of pleasure. I wish he was still here able to share his outlook on life with the world.