Sunday, July 16, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 27 - 1993

A work of non-fiction intersects with my favourite way of reading stories this week...


The trivia:
  • Corporate lawyer Gary Hoy used to perform a stunt for new employees where he would throw himself at the windows of the high-rise Toronto Dominion Centre to prove how unbreakable the glass was. Unfortunately when he did this at a reception on 9th July 1993, the glass did not break but popped right out of the frame, causing him to plunge twenty-four stories to his death.
  • When the Mississippi and Missouri rivers rose to unprecedented levels, one of the levees failed, flooding over 14,000 acres on the Missouri side and washing away all the bridges. Petty criminal and arsonist James Scott was eventually convicted of "intent to cause a catastrophe" by deliberately damaging the levee  - just so that he could strand his wife on the other side of the river and keep partying.
  • The barking sound that the velociraptors in "Jurassic Park" make to communicate with each other is actually the sound of two tortoises mating.

The memory:

Understanding Comics 

I was already a big fan of Scott McCloud before he released the book that would become his most famous and celebrated work. Back in the 1980s I had discovered his comic "Zot!" published by Eclipse - and followed its progression from a light-heated superhero story to a series that also sensitively dealt with issues of teenage sex, bigotry, homosexuality and feelings of not belonging. He also produced the over-sized one-shot "Destroy!!" which was an affectionate homage to the senseless superhero slug-fests of his youth.

But in 1993 McCloud published a non-fiction volume that attempted to explain exactly how comic books function - using the medium itself. At a time when the artistic merit of graphical storytelling was still in doubt, "Understanding Comics" engaged in a wide ranging discussion on the definition, history, vocabulary and methods of the form along with what happens to us as we read comics and how our minds interpret the information - the key balance of time, space, colour, words and pictures that form this unique language. All this in an incredibly accessible style.

McCloud begins by defining comics as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence" ("sequential art" for short) and then uses that as a jumping off point to show that they really have been around a lot longer than we might think. When he focuses on the visual aspect, it's as much about our subconscious reactions as anything else - one of the best things is when he explains how the reader is complicit n the telling of a comic book story because so much happens in the "gutters" - the spaces between the panels - where the reader has to fill in the gas and invent what is going on to connect one image to another..

Scott goes on to develop a whole system of pictorial vocabulary - a triangle with vertices of 'Reality' (where pictures represent the real world), 'Language' (where pictures communicate an idea), and the 'Picture Plane' (where pictures are just shapes). All visual storytelling, all comics, can be fitted into this triangle. It might sound complicated but McCloud's skill as writer and artist is that he builds up the concepts step by step in a clear and concise way that means even non-comics aficionados can follow it. He likewise has incisive and interesting things to say about the differences in the evolution of western and eastern comics, the various types of relations of text to image, the ways comics could more fully live up to their potential, and much , much more. It would be impossible to try and summarise the whole book - you need to experience it for yourself.

Before buying this book, I thought I knew all about comics. After all, I had been enjoying them almost from the time I learned to read. I thought I knew the conventions, the tricks - how to *read* comics. What I didn't realise was what I was missing  - the "invisible art" that is the sub-title to McCloud's opus and I'm not joking when I say it made me look at them in a whole new light. This is essential reading for anyone who loves any form of sequential art.

Scott went on to produce two equally brilliant sequels - "Reinventing Comics" in 2000 and "Making Comics" in 2006, plus become one of the pioneers of internet comics, micro-payments and the inventor of the "24-hour comic book" concept. He has also toured the US and Europe as a lecturer and advocate for the medium he adores. I'd love him to release a new updated version one day (or maybe even return to the world of "Zot!") but for now he has recently produced his most significant work of fiction in twenty years, in the form of the 496-page "The Sculptor". Even now he is still innovating. After all , as he says at the end of "Understanding Comics"...

Honourable mentions:
  • Myst - This one is for my wife, as she was the real addict to this famous graphical adventure, which was the best selling PC game for nearly ten years. It's combination of non-linear storytelling, challenging logic puzzles (which required a *lot* of lateral thinking and patience to solve) and beautiful pre-rendered locations captivated a generation of players and it was one of the first games that felt like a living breathing world. The four sequels improved the graphics nd interaction much further, but it's this first entry in the series that was a real turning point.
  • Cracker - Created by the excellent Jimmy McGovern, "Fitz" is an alcoholic, chain smoking foul-mouthed mess. But Robbie Coltrane's Edward Fitzgerald is also a brilliant criminal psychologist whose ability to get into the mind of his suspects enables him to solve the most complex cases - even if the means are sometimes dubious and the fallout to his personal life is disastrous. It's a mesmerising award-winning turn from Coltrane and the series turned the normal police procedural on it's head, presenting a side to criminal investigations that audiences had not seen before - dominated by a dangerously arrogant lead (in one episode, Fitz is so blinded by his own perceived intellectual infallibility that he even helps the polices extract a false confession from the wrong man). The supporting cast of flawed characters was second to none, with career high points from Christopher Eccleston, Geraldine Somerville and Lorcan Cranitch. McGovern was also not afraid to kill off his characters to show the consequences of the investigations - the death of DCI Bilborough at the end of series two was one of the most shocking and unexpected twists I'd seen on television and it's effects reverberated through the remaining episodes. 

  • Demolition Man - Forget "Rocky" or "The Expendables". This is Sylvester Stallone's best action film by far. Not only that, it's incredibly funny too. Sly is the brilliantly named John Spartan, a maverick cop who, while in the pursuit of  the insane Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), inadvertently causing the death of all the hostages. Both men are convicted for the deaths and sentenced to a CryoPrison where they are frozen for decades. Thawed out in 2032 for a parole hearing, Phoenix escapes and goes on a rampage in a society so free of crime that it's police force has forgotten how to deal with physical violence. Here in the future guns, alcohol, coffee and swearing are banned. Physical contact is discouraged and even going to to bathroom involves a mystifying process called "the three shells". But Lieutenant Huxley (Sandra Bullock) has an idea - unfreeze John Spartan to deal with the problem. "Set a maniac to catch a maniac"... What follows is not only an action blockbuster  in the true 90s mold but also a fish-out-of-water story as Spartan tries to come to terms with  this brave new Political-Correctness-gone- mad society, catch Phoenix  and figure out who is behind it all. It's an affectionate send up of the macho man genre and all three leads deliver great performances, with Stallone finally showing that with the right script he can do comedy. As someone who grew up on the futuristic satire of "Judge Dredd", this film was  right up my street and I loved it from the first viewing. 
  • The Book of Ultimate Truths -  Robert Rankin had been around since the early 80s, and I recall being lent a battered copy of his debut novel "The Antipope" at some point. The early follow up's in the increasingly mis-named "Brentford Trilogy" were pretty good fun, although I wasn't so enamoured of the "Armageddon" series. But it was this first book starring Cornelius Murphy and more importantly the Guru's Guru - Hugo Artemis Solon Saturnicus Reginald Arthur Rune - that kind of heralded his second coming and cemented his place as the "father of far-fetched fiction" with a stretch of over twenty novels full of catchphrases, re-occurring characters, running gags and convoluted plots usually involving a conspiracy of some sort. It's probably because of a tradition or old charter or something - or else because of the transperambulation of pseudocosmic antimatter...
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The best "Trek" series so far (I know, some of you will violently disagree) - probably because it throws out the 'wandering around the galaxy in a starship' for a fixed location where the characters can't run away from their problems. The first couple of seasons has the show still finding it's feet but once the Dominion are introduced and the war starts, "DS9" is firing on all cylinders and produces one classic episode after another. Nothing is black or white, complex characters change and mature and there are always consequences. Outside of the main plot arc there are a number of other excellent stories varying from the social and racially focused "Far Beyond The Stars" to the 30th anniversary tribute "Trials and Tribble-ations". As much as I like "The Next Generation" and have seen those episodes multiple times, "DS9" is the only "Star Trek" series I own on DVD.

Saturday, July 08, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 26 - 1992

Thankfully my bid to get back on track is boosted hugely because this week's top choice is something I have already written about before in another medium...


The trivia:
  • Around 70 members of the French scouting group 'Éclaireuses et Éclaireurs de France ' descended on the Upper Mayriere Cave at the Bruniquel archaeological site with the intention of using wire brushes to remove modern graffiti defacing the cave walls. Unfortunately they got a bit carried away and managed to at least partially remove two 15,000 year old prehistoric paintings of bison before realising what they were.
  • In 1633 under threat of torture, the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church forced Galileo Galilei, one of the founders of modern science, to recant his theory that the Earth revolved around the Sun. 359 years later Pope John Paul II finally declared that Galileo had been right. However it had taken the committee involved over a decade of research to makes their minds up.
  • When the ship "Ever Laurel" hit a storm in the North Pacific in January of 1992, several large containers were washed overboard - one of those those which burst open held a consignment of 28.800 "Friendly Floatee" bath toys in the shape of yellow ducks, red beavers, blue turtles and green frogs. As they were made from durable plastic and sealed watertight, they survived years adrift in the oceans. Some travelled over 17,000 miles and spent years frozen in Arctic ice before washing up on shores as far afield as Hawaii, Ireland and the UK.

The memory:

Virtual Murder

Back at the end of  2015, I wrote this post about the interesting journey which lead to me finally become a published writer -  through an essay about the short-lived BBC series "Virtual Murder" appearing in the "You And Who Else" charity anthology about 50 years of British telefantasy. Now 18 or so months later, I have reached the point in this series of look-back posts where the TV show was first transmitted, so it seems right that I should reproduce that essay here.

What you will read below is exactly the essay as it was published in "You And Who Else". I have just added a few pictures to break up the text.


Footfalls Echo In The Memory

Memory is what defines us. It makes us who we are as human beings. The man I am today has been shaped by the last 48 years of experiences. As much as I recall the morals and virtues instilled in me by my parents and the fun times I had as a child, I also recollect the harsh words from bullies at school or the rows with my ex-wife. They are all part of me.

Who I am now has also been heavily influenced by the television I watched. I have this reputation at work (from my participation in numerous pub quizzes) for being a repository for minor trivia about TV. It’s not really justified – it’s just that I can name all of the 'Fingerbobs' and sing the theme song to "Fraggle Rock" and tell you who played Will Scarlett in "Robin of Sherwood" – which my colleagues can’t. I think it’s because I have always tended to associate the different periods in my life with the SF and fantasy TV series of the times. A kind of tele-visual shorthand if you will – one informs the other and vice versa. As much as music or smells can be a mnemonic spark, fantastical TV (the odder the better) has been a trigger for me.

Ask me about being four or five years old and it will be as much about "Catweazle" or "Crystal Tipps and Alistair" as the birthday party I had or the holiday to the Isle of Wight. At ten my year was defined by "King of the Castle" and" Children of the Stones" – and something about a fancy dress street party for the Silver Jubilee. When I reflect on turning twenty in 1987, it’s "Star Cops" and "Max Headroom" that I think of. And through it all like a seam of gold in a layer of quartz is "Doctor Who". **

In 1992 I was 25 years old, had been at work in a steady job for several years and lived in a shared house with two friends (although that was about to come to a messy end – we had bought the place together, what were we thinking?). The following year I would meet the woman who would become my first wife. But right then, I was still (marginally) more interested in fiction than reality.

Comics and "Doctor Who" have always been my twin passions, but the Timelord had been off of the TV screens for three years and I’d sadly drifted away from being a fan – even disposing of all my Target novelisations (what a terrible mistake that turned out to be). Apart from the sublime "Twin Peaks" a year earlier, there was a not a whole lot of genre TV out there at this time - this was pre the "X-File"s / "Babylon 5" explosion. I’d gravitated towards "Star Trek: The Next Generation" and "Quantum Leap" – transmitted in that famous BBC2 6.00pm slot – but although both were great programmes, they just weren’t “special” to me in the way that "Doctor Who" had been. Something was about to come along to change all that…

In a TV landscape somewhat dominated by fly-on-the-wall documentaries, "Virtual Murder" was an attempt by the BBC to break the pattern and go back to what it has always done best – original drama, this time with a SF / fantasy leaning. It was also to be for adults – transmitted at 9.30pm in the evening. So what would this new series be like? Take the 60’s camp oddness of "The Avengers" or "Department S". Add in a dash of Holmesian detective skills and genius intellect. Toss in a soupcon of the eccentricities of "Doctor Who". Stir well with a pinch of modern technological innovations. Voila! A recipe for success? Maybe.

The show concerned the adventures of the square jawed Dr John Cornelius (JC), a psychology lecturer, played by the late Nicholas Clay. Assisted by glamorous girlfriend Samantha Valentine (Kim Thompson), he helped the police in tracking down macabre criminals.

In my personal world, bereft of my favourite kind of quirky escapist drama, I seized it with both hands. This was the kind of thing I wanted to watch – not endless episodes of police on the beat or conference meetings on starships in a supposedly perfect future society! The cases the eccentric Doctor Cornelius investigated were as equally bizarre as the criminals. Paintings suddenly melting, a trail of bodies linked by strange knot clues, the brother of Santa Claus in a tale of two skeletons, a modern-day vampire, and deadly corporate espionage in a virtual environment. "Next Gen" couldn’t offer that kind of uniquely British nuttiness. The series had a knowing awareness of its own overblown unreality - and I loved it. It was the little show that tried to be something different. 

I think I saw Cornelius as a kind of a proto-Timelord. Perhaps my Who fandom was trying to reassert itself? I could almost imagine a future incarnation of the Doctor being exiled to Earth like his predecessor and setting up in a university as a consultant psychologist / detective. Except this regeneration had a full romantic relationship with his “assistant”! There were already hints of both Baker’s in Nicholas Clay’s performance, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch. I’d always identified with the Doctor as the odd-one-out (which was exactly how I had felt during my formative years). With Who off the air, perhaps I latched onto JC as a role model. Being intelligent and well read *could* get you the girl. I’m not ashamed to say that I was still trying to “find” myself, even at 25.

Whatever the underlying reasons, every Friday night I would be sitting there watching - enjoying the banter between JC and Samantha, the skulduggery of the villains and the sheer style, fun and inventiveness on display. I tried talking about it with friends and family and work colleagues, but while those that weren’t down the pub on a Friday night enjoyed it well enough, they just didn’t seem to “get” it to quite the extent I did. In a way I liked that. "Virtual Murder" had become “my” show. Arguments had started between my friends and I, and despite living in the same house we weren’t socialising together anymore. I really felt quite unhappy and trapped in a situation of my own making, so I retreated into the things that gave me the most pleasure. Comic books and this strange serial had become my escape.

Even with all the Doctor-ish qualities I was probably projecting onto the programme, it was genuinely a who's-who of Who both in front of and behind the camera. Bernard Bresslaw, Philip Martin, Richard Todd, Bernard Horsfall, Peggy Mount - the list went on. Best of all, episode four had Jon Pertwee as Luis Silverado, a retired brothel keeper (and chef). Pertwee quite obviously had a ball in the role – dodgy Spanish accent, twirling Mario-like grey moustache and pyromaniacal tendencies. It was "Doctor Who" seen through Star Trek's mirror universe. His character died all too soon, and the episode is the poorer for it, but his brief appearance was fantastic.

There were a plethora of other well known guest artistes too. Hywel Bennett was cast against type for the first time as a villain. Plus Ronald Fraser, Tessa Wyatt, Sean Pertwee, Tony Robinson, Jill Gascoine – Julian Clary as an undertaker even – bulked out an impressive cast list for a serial lasting only a few short weeks. The BBC had put a lot of effort into this.

Looking back now, "Virtual Murder" might also have contained the seed of a lot of elements in popular BBC detective series to come. Is there the kernel of the central relationship between Jonathan Creek and Maddie Magellan in the sparky rapport between JC and Samantha? Maybe a glint of the modern day Sherlock, twenty years before Steven Moffat’s triumphant reboot? Yes, I think about the show that much, even all this time later.

Sadly it wasn’t to last. Six weeks of madness and magic and then it was gone. John Cornelius disappeared off into the sunset, never to be seen by anyone ever again. You see, the real crime JC and Samantha should investigate is why "Virtual Murder" wasn’t an instant gigantic success – and more importantly why is it that this wonderful offbeat set of six episodes has never been repeated on TV or released on any version of home media. The only reason I still have copies to watch now is because I luckily captured them on VHS at the time. The tapes are long gone (victim of a move to a smaller house) but I still have the digital copies I made. Okay, by today’s standards it’s moderately dated in that 1990’s ‘over the top staging / everything’s on videotape / someone’s discovered the funky scene transition effects button’ kind of way, but I didn’t care then and I don’t care now.

What is even worse though is that as marvellous as it was, it seems I’m one of only a handful of people who even remember it existed at all. Go on - do an internet search for Virtual Murder. I’ll wait here for you…

See? Excluding the obvious sites like Wikipedia and IMDB, there are less than half a dozen entries. Even something as obscure as 1977’s American SF sitcom “Quark” has more pages devoted to it and a DVD release. Virtual Murder has been consigned to oblivion – and that’s a damn shame. 

I mentioned earlier that I link TV shows with memories of specific times in my life. Virtual Murder is lodged in there deep and will always bring to mind a transitional and rather difficult period – after becoming independent from my parents, but before the highs (and lows) of what was to become a serious long term relationship. Maybe the rest of the world has forgotten about this odd and unique drama, but me? - I will continue to remember it with great affection.


** Some of the shows mentioned here will get their own blog posts outside of the "Golden Sunsets" strand at some point in the future. Just in case you wondered...

Honourable mentions:

  • The Muppet Christmas Carol - The best version of the Dickens classic story bar none, and I love pretty much every adaptation out there. It was the first Muppet movie made after the death of legendary creator Brian Henson, and I think he would have been very pleased with the results. The key casting of Michael Caine, who plays it completely straight, was genius - but it's the spot on selection of the various Muppets for each of the other roles plus the incredibly catchy songs by Paul Williams that make it such an wonderfully enchanting tale. Watching it has become a Christmas tradition in our household and my kids grew up with it as their favourite film. 
  • Savage Dragon - Created by Erik Larsen, one of the original Image Comics founders, this is one of only two titles that has been in continuous publication since the company started. Larsen has written, drawn (and in many cases coloured and lettered) the main strip for every single issue over a period of twenty-five years. - in itself an incredible feat. However what is just as important is that the comic passes in real time, with characters growing up, changing, dying and new creations taking their place. The original Dragon was a green skinned man with huge arms and a large fin on his head. He had vast superhuman strength and was almost impossible to kill because his body had the ability to regenerate itself. He starred in the series for the first 192 issues but was then superseded by his son, Malcolm, who has slightly different powers including the ability to generate electrical charges.  An unabashed superhero comic in the Jack Kirby tradition, Larsen's willingness to experiment coupled with his exaggerated kinetic artwork and huge cast of heroes and villains has kept me reading long after I have dropped all other mainstream titles.

  • Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes - In a year that (unfortunately) gave us Right Said Fred, Billy Ray Cyrus and 4 Non Blondes, the stand-out has to be the first album from singer-songwriter Tori Amos. With shades of the quirky, experimental nature of my beloved Kate Bush filtered through an American lens -  and some of the darkest and most soul-bearing lyrics I had thus far encountered, I was instantly smitten and could see that this was the debut of a major talent. I played the whole record constantly and immersed myself in Tori's unique world - one which I've yet to tire of in the 13 albums since. There are many standout tracks - the raw emotion of "Me and A Gun" and the lament to lost love of "China" spring to mind - but if I have to pick a favourite it would be Tori's song about her relationship with her minister father..."Winter":

  • Toys - When toymaker Kennth Zevo dies and operation of the company is left to his war-minded brother Leland (Michael Gambon) instead of his children Leslie and Alsatia (Robin Williams and Joan Cusack). The factory turns into a military complex, producing war toys and drones, and  Leslie is forced to fight for his family legacy and control of the company. Ambitious, surreal and incredibly divisive, this cautionary fable is definitely one of those "love it or loathe it" kind of films and I'm betting you can guess which side of the fence I fall on.  I just love the sheet amount of visual imagination on display. The camera work, sets and acting combine to produce something that's very off kilter and  and what may seem like a light-hearted movie actually has a pretty serious message at it's heart. It also helps that it has a fantastic soundtrack from the likes of Grace Jones, Thomas Dolby and a certain Tori Amos. 

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 25 - 1991

(Very) late again. But I have a plan...


The trivia:
  • When robbers broke into the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam thanks to help from one of the security guards, they made off with 20 carefully chosen paintings worth a fortune. Unfortunately their careful planning was hampered by their main getaway car having a flat tire, causing them to abandon a stolen guard's car and flee - leaving all the paintings inside. Everything was recovered safely just 35 minutes after the initial theft.
  • The record for the most people on a single aircraft was set in 1991 by an El Al Boeing 747 during 'Operation Solomon' when 1,086 Ethiopian Jews were evacuated from Addis Ababa. to Israel. The plane landed with 1,088 passengers as two babies were born during the flight. 
  • "Kentucky Fried Chicken" officially changed its name to "KFC". A conspiracy theory of the time claimed that this was because they were not selling actual chickens, but cloned headless chicken bodies. 

The memory:


So at last we come to my favourite comedy TV show of all time - the one that stands head and shoulders above all others. It's the culmination of all the work that Rik Mayall and Ade Edmonson had done in years past with "The Dangerous Brothers", "The Young Ones" and "Filthy, Rich & Catflap". It's bleak, violent, chaotic and incredibly silly. It's their masterpiece and I just bloody well love it.

Richard "Richie" Richard (Mayall) and Edward Elisabeth "Eddie" Hitler (Edmonson) are two layabout perverted nutters who live in Hammersmith, London. Eddie mostly thinks about drinking and  and Richie is desperate to meet a woman and finally "do it". They hate each other but seem doomed to be stuck together, wishing for better things but never achieving them. As many have observed, it's Samuel Beckett's "Waiting For Godot" with plenty of added extreme "Tom and Jerry" style slapstick violence to go round. A frying pan in the face usually.

Each week would see the pair of losers make some attempt to improve their lot or fill the void of their meaningless lives - and usually fail. Whether it was trying to attract "birds" down the "Lamb & Flag" by wearing a pheromone sex spray, stealing the gas supply from next door just as the gasman arrives to read the meter, the pair indulging in a chess game using some frozen prawns, a potted cactus, a bottle of ketchup and a large Spider-Man figurine, or Richie deciding that he was the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary due to some dodgy Christmas gifts, it was all side-splittingly funny.

There were also some memorable guest stars. Brian Glover was suitably menacing (yet tender) as Mr. Rottweiler next door. Helen Lederer was rich aristocrat Lady Natasha Letitia Sarah Jane Wellesley Obstromsky Ponsonsky Smythe Smythe Smythe Smythe Smythe Oblomov Boblomov Dob and of course Stephen O'Donnell and Chris Ryan apperaed several times as Eddie's best fiends Spudgun and Dave Hedgehog. But many of the episodes featured just Rik and Ade for the full half hour doing what they do best - insulting each other, and committing the most awful violent acts.

The really important thing about the series though is that if  the mutual enjoyment of "Mr Jolly Lives Next Door" had brought my much younger sister and I closer together, "Bottom" was the thing that really cemented how much we had the same sense of humour. Our parents didn't get it and our brother could take it or leave it., so this was *our* show and we were utterly fanatical about it. I bought all the VHS videos and the "Bottom Fluffs" out take compilations, Episodes such as "Smells", "Gas", "Apocalypse", Digger" and "Terror" were watched over and over again and the brilliant lines were endlessly quoted between us.

We were also lucky enough to get to see three of the live stage shows. The first tour in particular I remember being an incredibly hot evening in the theatre and Rik and Ade were constantly having to wipe themselves down (ooo-err). With the hilarious script (much ruder than the TV version) plus the constant ad-libs, mucking about and trying to put each other off I think I nearly passed out from laughing so much. The first two shows are the best in my opinion, but any chance to see the geniuses at work up close was worth it.

Even now birthday or Christmas cards between us always end with "Love from all the lads on the Ark Royal". A compliment sometimes gets an added "..and may I just say what a smashing blouse you have on?". Sometimes we just shout "Gasman!!" at each other. We spent one memorable New Years Eve texting each other trying to see who could recall the most quotes (it was a draw). I even have a mug which proclaims I am a "Sad old git". Our shared love of a daft TV programme has endured.

This show isn't just something I enjoyed watching. It hasn't just seeped into my consciousness. It's welded itself inextricably to my DNA.

I wouldn't have it any other way.

Honourary mentions:
  • G.B.H. - Alan Bleasdale's  political drama about the rise and fall of a militant left Labour city councilor is full of pitch black humour, farcical behaviour and rage against elitist society, but he also manages to imbue all  his characters with a complexity and depth that no matter how nasty they might be you still feel for them. Robert Lindsay is a revelation as the angry, womanising Michael Murray who wages a war against Michael Palin's special needs teacher - each of them on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As revelations about his childhood are constantly on the verge of being revealed, Murray descends into a accumulation of  tics and jerks, likely to randomly shoot his arm up in a Hitler-like salute at the oddest moments. The political edge may be blunted somewhat to modern audiences, but I remember at the time being gripped by all seven episodes. All this and part of one episode is set at a "Doctor Who" convention !
  • The death of Freddie Mercury - The sad demise of the "Queen" front man was the first celebrity passing that really affected me (the other was naturally Rik Mayall). I didn't know Mr. Mercury personally of course, but his distinctive voice had been part of the soundtrack of my life for so many years and even decades later I still think about the wonderful music that we never got to hear. When it was announced that Freddie had gone and the TV channels first showed the stark black and white video for "These Are The Days Of Our Lives", I had floods of tears running down my face. The vibrant star looked so ill and he must have known that it was to be one of his final ever performances. There is a look that he gives to camera at the end as he quietly states "I still love you". It gets me ever single damn time.

  • Imajica by Clive Barker - The fantasy / horror maestro's largest book, and in my opinion his best. The Earth is one of five Dominions, collectively known as the 'Imajica', overseen by the Unbeheld Hapexamendios.  However our sphere  has been cut off from the other four for thousands of years by the 'In Ovo' void. Those who practice the ancient magical arts (known as Maestros) have repeatedly tried (and failed) to reconcile Earth with the other Dominions. The last attempt two hundred years ago resulted in the death of everyone involved and led to the formation of the Tabula Rasa, a secret society tasked with preventing any further use of magic.Into this scenario are thrust a seemingly normal human man and his ex wife, her poet lover and a mysterious assassin - but this is just the tip of a an insanely huge iceberg. Calling This novel epic just doesn't do it justice, and every one of its thousand plus pages (it later had to be split into two volumes) is needed to handle the complex plot and the mind-warping concepts. Truly brilliant.
  • Defending Your Life - Albert Brooks plays Daniel Miller, an advertising executive who dies in a car accident. He finds himself in the pleasant modern surroundings of 'Judgement City' where all humans must stand trial to see if they have matured enough to pass to the next phase of existence, or return to Earth for another try. During this he meets and falls in love with Julia (Meryl Streep) who has led a life of generosity and courage, while Daniel's actions have always been ruledby his own insecurities. The events of the film are full of wonderful gentle performances from the two actors, plus great support from veteran Rip Torn as Miller's defence lawyer. You wouldn't think that a young man in his twenties would like an American romantic comedy full of musings on the nature of existence and how as human beings we are all basically ruled by fear. But something in this whimsical fantasy drama touched me and it's remained a pleasant memory ever since I first saw it.
  • Doctor Who: The New Adventures - I have an admission to make. I was never really into these books when they initially came out. Oh I bought the first half a dozen along with my friend Ian, but when he carried on to collect the full set, I abandoned them. My interest in "Doctor Who" had waned significantly by this point and there was just too much other non-TV-related fiction to read instead. Such was the case for over a decade. Of course when the new series arrived in 2005 I made up for it by purchasing the whole lot (at great expense sadly). "Stories too broad and too deep for the small screen" the blurb on the back covers proclaimed and yes, there are many things which even in today's progressive society RTD or Moffat could't get away with in a prime-time family show. My reading speed has ground to a crawl in recent years (I need sleep more) but I still harbour an ambition to read all the Seventh Doctor adventures in a long marathon sequence...
  • Hudson Hawk - I don't care that almost no-one else seems to like this film. I love it. It's surreal, crazy, over-the-top, inventive, outlandish, often doesn't make sense and just damn good fun. It's not an action movie (which was part of the problem with the marketing). It's a crime caper cum spy film like the 1960s "Our Man Flint" but seen through a 1990s lens  - it even features James Coburn in a supporting role and *that* telephone ringing noise. Richard E. Grant is also hamming it up for all he is worth. By all accounts it was hellish to make but the pain for those involved was worth it. Bruce Willis is more like the charming, wisecracking detective from "Moonlighting" than tough-as-nails John McClane from "Die Hard", and that's all the better as far as I am concerned. I'm going to go and watch it again right *now*.

  • Sega Mega Drive - This was my first games "console" - as opposed to the ZX Spectrum which was more of a home computer. For various reasons I only ever bought half a dozen or so games for it but, of course the original "Sonic The Hedgehog" was my favourite.The thought of the lava and underwater levels still gives me palpitations...

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 24 - 1990

Damn. Running a bit behind, so apologies for the brevity of this one. Must. Catch. Up. 

So one thing dominated my life this year. The owls are not what they seem...


The trivia:
  • Long before the hugely successful musical comedy series concerning the William McKinley High School Glee Club, there was another TV show that tried to fuse drama with big show tunes. "Cop Rock" was created by "Hill Street Blues" supremo Stephen Bochco and centred on the Los Angeles Police Department as they went about their usual duties, but routinely broke out into musical and dance numbers throughout the storylines. It's bizarre nature and a critical drubbing meant it lasted a mere eleven episodes.
  • An even quicker departure from TV screens was the fate of an incredibly ill-considered "situation comedy" from fledgling UK satellite TV channel 'Galaxy'. "Heil Honey I'm Home!" was a parody of early American domestic comedies with their corny characters and wildly applauding audiences. The problem was that the situation was Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun living in Berlin and repeatedly trying to get rid of their Jewish neighbours next door! Needless to say although a number of episodes were recorded, only one was ever shown amidst a storm of protests and the whole thing was quietly shoved under the carpet never to be seen again.
  • Launched in October 1990, the now world famous Internet Movie Database (IMDb) started life as a Usenet posting by British film fan Colin Needham. Back then however it was known as "Those Eyes" and its sole interest was...actresses with beautiful eyes.

The memory:

Twin Peaks

It's hard to believe that twenty-six years after it ended, here I am able to turn on my television screen and watch brand new episodes of "Twin Peaks". I don't think I have been this excited about the revival of a TV show since "Doctor Who" came back in 2005. This is probably because when it first aired on British screens in 1990, "Twin Peaks" became something that consumed me.

To be honest I don't really want to talk about the minutiae of the plot or the quality of the scripts and actors and programme makers. Far better people than I have written thousands of words on the subject and there have been lots of articles and look-backs in recent months leading up to the revival. But for the sake of those who may have been living under a rock, let 's get the basic information out of the way first - the stuff that pretty much everyone is aware of even if they have never watched the show, because it's seeped into the public consciousness. Mark Frost and David Lynch. Special Agent Dale Cooper. Who killed Laura Palmer? A body wrapped in plastic. Damn fine coffee and cherry pie. One-armed men, giants, a red curtained room and lots of weird stuff that no one quite understands.

But "Twin Peaks" was so much more that just an odd murder / mystery / soap opera. As it's popularity grew during those weeks of October / November 1990, my friends and I began to get together to watch the show, having weekly Twin Peaks evenings where we could view the episode and then chat about what it all meant. The haunting music by Angelo Badalamenti became our soundtrack. We poured over the details, every new snippet of information in newspapers and magazines. Considering the UK was six months behind original transmission at the start (we caught up significantly by the end of season two), I don't remember any spoilers leaking out about the shooting of Agent Cooper at the end of episode eight. Luckily we only had to wait over the Christmas break before finding out the resolution...

That meant I personally had time to read "The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer" - an official 'novel' which fleshed out the personal history of the tragic teenager and her descent into a world of prostitution, drugs and the manipulations of an evil creature called BOB. It was the perfect way to continue my fascination with the series and it's characters.

When the programme returned in January it was full steam head into 22 episodes of drama, weirdness and horror. The revelation of Laura's killer was just the start. I know I may be in the minority here, but I really enjoyed the involvement of Cooper's old partner Windom Earle and the lengths he went to to gain access to the Black Lodge. The more mystery and mythology the show added the better as far as I was concerned - which meant that the final episode was an astonishing mix of the mundane and the mad, culminating in one of the best cliffhangers in TV history.

Sadly there was to be no immediate follow-up. But I consoled myself with the other assorted official merchandise. "The Autobiography of FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper" gave a lot of background to the unconventional agent. "Twin Peaks: An Access Guide to the Town" was my travellers guide. But my favourite was "Diane... - The Twin Peaks Tapes of Agent Cooper". Performed by Kyle MacLachlan, this was a cassette tape only release which consisted of newly recorded Cooper messages to his unseen assistant Diane, mixed in with sound clips from the broadcasts. This was material set both before and during his trip to Twin Peaks and included Cooper being shot and recovering afterwards. It was as close as I could come to a new episode.

Of course in 1992 we did get something new, although "Fire Walk With Me" wasn't quite what I personally had in mind. It's disturbing narrative and time-twisting prequel / sequel nature meant that on first viewing  many didn't get it - including, I hate to admit, me. It's not a "Twin Peaks" continuation - it's more a David Lynch horror movie set in the same world. Of course subsequently I came to realise what a brilliant piece of cinema it is and how it draws so many of the themes together.

I continued to stay connected to "Twin Peaks" fandom over the next couple of  years, buying the regular fanzine "Wrapped In Plastic" from Win-Mill Productions. But by the time that folded in 1996 any sign of a third series was a non-existent and the television world had moved onto other things - and to be honest so had I. But the series (and my interest in it) was always there at the back of my mind, and I eagerly purchased the various DVD and Blu-ray box sets as they came out, relishing the additional material each one provided.

Over the years rumours continued to surface of a continuation / mini-series / film to explain everything and resolve the dangling plotlines but they never came to anything until...well, here we are in 2017 with eighteen new episodes written and directed by the mastermind behind it all. Judging from the first few I have watched, this is pure unfiltered Lynch - unrestrained by corporate network interference and able to deliver his vision the way he wants to. I couldn't be happier.

Honourable mentions:
  • Parker Lewis Can't Lose - In the wake of the success of the 1986 movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off", the Fox TV network debuted a high school comedy series that riffed on the same idea of a student constantly getting one over on the teachers and other antagonists. The difference was that "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" embraced a far more surreal element that saw it teeter on the edge of destroying the fourth wall. As the titular cool guy, Corin Nemec strolled through the halls of Santo Domingo High with his best buds with unshakeable self confidence, a plan for every situation and an endless supply of loud shirts. Every episode brought a new problem - whether it was outwitting the machinations of the Cruella de Vil-like Principal Musso or Parker's own maniacal little sister. There was an almost Chuck Jones cartoon-like quality to the production, with endless sight gags, visual cues and pop culture references (that will seem incredibly outdated by now). Importantly it was one of the first shows that I ever watched on satellite television. Late 1990 was the year that we got a Sky dish after my parents had initially gone with the "squariel" dish  and the five BSB channels - not the first time that my dad backed the loser in a technology race. In a plethora of new imported shows on "Sky Channel", this little comedy stood out as being fresh and different, even if it'a a little cheesy.
  • Dances With Wolves -  Kevin Costner's epic historical western which tells the story of a Union Lieutenant and his relationship with a tribe of Lakota Indians was my favourite film of the year by a wide margin. Although I was already a fan of the genre through exposure to the classics by my parents, I vividly remember going to the cinema with my friends and being blown away (even if the projectionist did get the screen ratio wrong at the beginning so everything was squashed and had to start the reel again). This was also a time where a three hour long movie was rare, which made the whole thing seem even more of an event (the eventual four-hour special edition was even better).  Like "Jaws", I have bought multiple versions over the years in different formats, along with the Oscar-winning soundtrack by John Barry. 
  • Postcards From The Edge - The film version of the late Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical novel starring Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine and Dennis Quaid is a quality piece of drama. But it's on purely this list because of how much I love the song - "I'm Checkin' Out" - that Meryl's character Suzanne Vale performs in the closing moments. Even if you don't like country music, it's still a fantastic performance:
  • The Crystal Maze - The original and best version of the classic puzzle-solving adventure game show with mercurial host Richard O'Brien. The challenge saw teams of contestants travelling across four different "zones" to compete in a series of different mental, physical, skill or 'mystery' games against the clock. Each successful game won a time crystal. These allowed the players a certain amount of time in the "Crystal Dome" where they had to collect as many gold tokens as possible from those blown into the air by gigantic fans. Getting over a certain number of gold tokens won the prize - usually activity days out. O'Brien was a perfect if unconventional host - genial and welcoming but also quick with a deadpan quip and jokes to camera about the contestants stupidity. His presence made the programme hugely successful and I religiously watched every week. After his departure it limped on with Ed Tudor-Pole but it was never the same. However the format is so well remembered and loved that a 2017 revival has just started and there are even two real world version you can take part in. I must get a team together...

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 23 - 1989

Once again it was difficult to choose something for the top spot this week. That's mainly because I desperately want to avoid the obvious choices (although some do creep into "honourable mentions") plus other items are excluded because I plan longer posts on them once this is all over. In the end I went with a series of books which a lot of people will never have heard of, but which were far better than their beginnings might suggest...


The trivia:
  • Scuba diver William Lamm was swimming in eight feet of water in Florida when he was accidentally sucked into the intake pipe for Hutchinson Island's nuclear power plant. Carried at speed through over 1,600 feet of pipeline, he was eventually dumped into the cooling pond surrounding the reactor. Thankfully he survived with barely a bruise.
  • An amateur collector of 18th century maps bought an old tattered painting of a country scene for US$ 4.00 at a Pennsylvania bargain sale - purely because he liked the frame. When he took the frame apart, he discovered a copy of the US Declaration of Independence hidden inside. Thinking it nothing more than a curiosity, he just put it to one side until a friend convinced him to contact an expert. It turned out to be one of only 200 "John Dunlap broadsides" printed on the evening of 4th July 1776 and sold two years later for US$ 2.4 million.
  • A MiG-23 pilot mistakenly ejected on take off from a Polish airfield.The aircraft continued to fly over 500 miles on autopilot only to eventually crash into a house in Belgium, sadly killing a teenager living there.

The memory:

The Cineverse Cycle by Craig Shaw Gardner

In the wake of the success of Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" novels, publishers realised that comic fantasy could be big business. The truth is that a more light-hearted take on the standard fantasy tropes had been around for a long time, but it had never captured the general public's imagination. in quite the same way until now - so suddenly there was a plethora of new authors to choose from in the UK. During regular trips to Forbidden Planet I started to pick up a number of these books - John DeChancie's "Castle Perilous" series, Simon Hawke's "The Wizard of Fourth Street", Christopher Statsheff's "Warlock" sequence (although he had actually been writing for many years beforehand).and Alan Dean Fosters "Spellsinger". In addition I continued to collect the ongoing "Xanth" adventures from Piers Anthony. I bought a *lot* of books.

Amongst the dozens of new titles on the shelves, one author particularly stood out - but what attracted me to his name was not the blurb on the back, but the cover. You see, in a canny move, the publishers decided to get Discworld artist Josh Kirby to also produce the covers for the books by American writer Craig Shaw Gardner. I guess they felt that readers who already strongly associated Kirby's instantly recognisable work with the quality of Pratchett's books, would make the same leap and feel that they were being told "this is more of the same kind of stuff". Well guess what - it worked on me!

Gardner released "A Malady of Magicks" in 1986, but I think it was some time later when it, and the other two volumes in this first trilogy ("A Multitude of Monsters" and "A Night in the Netherhells")  reached UK shores with their Kirby covers. In a nutshell, the main plot is fairly simple - Ebenezum is a possibly the greatest wizard of the age. After an altercation with a demon, causes him to be cursed to be allergic to magic,  he and his hapless apprentice Wuntvor must journey to the City of Forbidden Delights in search of a cure, all the while avoiding death, disaster and perils such as tap-dancing dragons, enchanted chickens, etc, etc. It's your typical episodic quest narrative and very reminiscent in places of "The Colour of Magic" and "The Light Fantastic" with its send-up of standard fantasy. It's light, whimsical and occasionally funny - good enough to while away the time on a train journey but certainly nothing mind-blowingly original. Nonetheless I enjoyed the books enough to pick up the sequel "Wuntvor" trilogy, which ventures into fairy tale territory as the helper becomes the hero and has to save the world with help from (amongst others) an amorous unicorn, a ferret and a cowardly sword.

I've written before how I took one of these books to a Terry signing and he wrote inside "nice cover.,...". But these Pratchett-pastiches are not the core of this particular memory. Craig Shaw Gardner's next series was far more in tune with my love for all things from the worlds of movies, pulp serials and comic books....

Billed as the first volume in the Cineverse Cycle", "Slaves of the Volcano God" concerns public relations worker Roger, an average guy who discovers that his girlfriend Delores is actually from the Cineverse, where each world is based on a B-movie genre. Roger can travel between worlds using his trust Captain Crusader Decoder Ring (found inside a cereal packet). The key to the Cineverse is that "Movie Magic" always applies - so in the Wild West, cowboys never run out of ammo, if you enter the "Musical Comedies" you may never escape as everyone bursts into song at inopportune moments, and good guys always win (except in 1970s gritty dramas). On his quest to rescue Delores from the villainous Doctor Dread, Roger also has to figures out what caused "The Change" (the reason why movies are just not as good as they used to be) and exactly who or what is the Plotmaster... The story continues in "Bride of the Slime Monster" and concludes in "Revenge of the Fluffy Bunnies".

I think what appealed to me most about the Cineverse is that it's obvious that Gardner has a deep abiding love for the B-movie genre and it's conventions. His story is peppered with allusions to classics of the past and each of his worlds has been designed to operate within its own rule-sets and contain appropriate challenges. Along with this there is a feel of those black and white Republic serials with their weekly cliffhangers, dastardly villains and bizarre science. My own childhood was one of growing up with a film-loving family and weekends and school holidays filled with the likes of "Flash Gordon", "King of the Rocketmen", "Them!", "Godzilla" or "It Came From Beneath The Sea", The more you know about the movies, the more you will enjoy these books. It's a far more original work that the humorous fantasies of Ebenezum and Wuntvor - satirical rather than trying to be "funny" and all the better for it. It also helps that there is a rollicking good plot inside the pages.

Long out of print, the "Cineverse Cycle" is a lost pearl amongst a sea of parodies and Pratchett copycats. Not every book has to be epic or life changing or worthy of the Man Booker prize. Sometimes you just need a series that is damn good fun.

Honourable mentions:
  • Batman - He could never better the late great Adam West, but Michael Keaton made a pretty good Dark Knight and an even better Bruce Wayne. The costume is excellent, the Batmobile looks suitably cool and Gotham feels like somewhere that the bizarre rogues gallery could come from (even if it does look like a movie set a little too much at times). Keaton certainly shut down the haters who lambasted his casting when his name was first attached. I'm not so enamoured with Jack Nicholson's Joker. Yes the Clown Prince of Crime is meant to be over the top, but Nicholson went too far in the wrong direction for my personal tastes - but I guess superhero movies were a big gamble back then and they needed a "name" actor to anchor things for cinema goers. Despite this, I still loved the film when it first came out and even though I wasn't the greatest Prince fan, bought both soundtrack albums. The less said about Vicki Vale the better though...

  • Truckers by Terry Prachett - So after I headlined one of his 'imitators', here comes PTerry himself with the first in the "Nome / Bromeliad" trilogy. It was the first non-Discworld book of his that I read, and I instantly became enamoured with the tiny characters and their journey to find where they came from and how to get back there - especially this first novels central concept of an entire tribe of Nomes living under the floorboards of a department store. "Truckers" showed the world that Pratchett was capable of more than just tales of witches and wizards and luggage with legs and the trilogy as a whole is as good as any of the best Discworld stories. Animation experts Cosgrove Hall of "Danger Mouse " fame did an excellent stop-motion adaptation in 1992.
  • Doom Patrol - I can't really be called a Grant Morrison fan. Much of the time (especially in recent years) he feels like a bargain basement Alan Moore tribute act, revelling in trying to be clever for clevers sake, but occasionally he does have real flashes of originality and brilliance. His reinvention of this 1960s DC super-team of freaks and rejects with artist Richard Case is one such occurrence. I was fascinated by the bizarre storylines and creations he came up with, such as the Brotherhood of Dada, the Scissormen and Danny The Street. It's all so absurd and abstract and a little bit pretentious that you can't help being swept away by the insanity.
  • London Boys - The Twelve Commandments of Dance - It's cheesy Europop synth dance music and to be honest it's pretty awful. Why is it even on the list then? Well apart from the fact that the songs were never off the radio in the summer of 1989, it's here because it was an album I bought and tried to like to impress a girl I was genuinely infatuated with. Listening now instantly transports me back to a time and place when I was young, naive and a little bit too keen. No wonder the lady in question tolerated my friendship and nothing further...

  • Metropolis :the musical - With, let's be fair, only a couple of really good tunes, this stage version of the Fritz Lang classic needed something else to make it stand out. Thankfully it had the UK debut of future star Judy Kuhn as Maria / Futura and the deep voice and magnetic presence of the one and only Brian Blessed - and actor Jonathan Adams in a great supporting role. In addition there was the huge metallic moving set with it's rising platforms and cradles coming from the ceiling. That, plus my love for the original film was enough to get me to the theatre three times in quick succession. Which was just as well as "Metropolis" only lasted 214 performances before being consigned to a footnote in musical history. "The machines are beautiful..."

  • Beautiful Stories For Ugly Children - The first series from DC's alternative imprint Piranha Press was not really a comic book at all, more a series of text stories with accompanying illustrations. But what stories they were. Forget the brightly coloured pantheon of superheroes, this was a monochromatic world of unsettling, twisted and creepy fables with titles such as "A Cotton Candy Autopsy", "Die Ranbow Die" and The Santas of Demotion Street" . Written by Dave Loupre and drawn by Dan Sweetman,whose scratchy yet beautiful penmanship offered a distorted view of the world, these tales were full of dark humour, unsympathetic characters and unhappy endings. It was thirty issues of brilliance. 

  • Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure - The best film ever about time travel in a phone box (well at least until a proper "Doctor Who" movies gets made). Every viewing (and there have been many) is a wonderful joyous experience. It's damn near perfect and incredibly the sequel is even better. What else can I say except...

Friday, June 16, 2017

I Saw Elvis In A Potato Chip Once 15 - The X-Files 1.15 - Lazarus

This is a bit more like it...

The X-Files 1.15 - Lazarus

Thankfully it's a more solid episode this week, The problem is that I can't say it was particularly exciting to watch and consequently I don't have a lot to say about it. However, along with lots of real detective work, there were a couple of nice touches:

Firstly we have the revelation that Dana Scully definitely has a thing for older men, having dated her teacher at some point. While we can question the appropriateness of this and the "daddy issues" that it might suggest, at least it adds further nuance to Scully's character - that's if it is part of her persona and not just a convenient hook dreamt up to hang the plot off of.

The second thing I liked was the professor and his lovely story about the airline pilot who supposedly became possessed by the dead husband of his lover and later strangled her with an extension cord. It's the almost gleeful way that he smiles and walks away after telling this tall tale that endeared him to me. "That's a nice story" says Mulder after a long pause...

Things really do hinge on the performance of Christopher Allport in the role of Willis / Dupre-in Willis' body, and he does some great work here. He's particularly convincing as the multiple murder back from the dead and Dupre's infatuation with Lulu is mirrored is Willis's own intense obsession with the homicidal psychopaths. They are clearly meant to be a take on the Bonnie and Clyde outlaw couple trope, and both guest actors do well in portraying the viciousness of the duo. Nice skull mask too.

I'm less happy with Scully's continued resistance to believe in *any* of Mulder's theories even in the face of some solid evidence to the contrary. I get that this is her ex lover who is being "possessed", so she's more defensive than usual, but her stubbornness to even consider alternative explanations is bordering on stupidity. Surely she should be at least considering that Willis might be ill or unstable after being technically dead for so long - but no, she seems totally okay with things, blindly accepting that "Willis" passed his FBI evaluations and has been cleared to return to duty. Speaking of which, there is no way that Dupre would pass the FBI tests  - he's not a trained agent and has no access to Willis' memories (he can't recall Scully's birthday). It's a tiny step too far.

Other thoughts and facts:

  • The whole bit with Dupre's tattoo felt like the writers needed to hammer home the point that Willis had been possessed. It would have been far better to make it more ambiguous and leave viewers in the dark somewhat about if it had really happened, or if Willis's preoccupation with Dupree and Lulu had pushed him off the deep end. 
  • Why did "Willis" cut off three fingers from Dupre's hand? He only wanted the ring so surely one would have been enough.
  • Can you really estimate the height of a plane from the noise of the engine? Apparently so.
  • Someone seems to have Mark Snow's soundtrack generator on autopilot. The "creepy music" riff pops up in the most unusual and inappropriate places in this episode.

In conclusion, while the whole idea of a vengeful "soul" possessing another persons body after death is not a new idea, and the execution might be a tad pedestrian, there are a number of little moments within the episode that lift it above the mere humdrum.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Golden Sunsets - 50 Years Of Memories - Part 22 - 1988

A real case of "you had to be there"...


The trivia:
  • As a protest against null voting, Brazilian magazine "Casseta Popular" submitted a chimpanzee named Tiao from the Rio de Janeiro zoo as a candidate in the upcoming election. Tiao was well known locally for his bad temper and habit of throwing mud and feces on visitors. In the election he incredibly received over 400,000 votes and came third. but of course his ballots were considered null. When Tiao died in 1996 at the age of 34, the city declared three days of official mourning. Shades of Mayor Dave the Orangutan in 2000 AD ?
  • At the opening ceremony of the Seoul Summer Olympics, a large group of white doves were released to symbolise peace. Later the Olympic torch was carried into the stadium, and by now many of the doves had settled on the cauldron of the official flame. Despite this, the lighting of the flame proceeded as normal and worldwide TV audiences watched in horror at scenes of the doves being cooked alive on the world's biggest barbecue.
  • Former NASA engineer Edgar C. Whisenant wrote a book predicting that the Rapture (when the Christian dead would be resurrected and join the living in heaven for eternity) would occur in September 1988. The book sold more than 4.5 million copies and some evangelical groups began to prepare their members for the coming event. When it failed to occur, at the appointed time, Whisenant followed up with other books - with predictions for 1989, 1993 and 1994. These failed to sell quite so well...
  • In 1988 a huge controversy swirled around Hollywood regarding the attempts to colourise black and white films. Speaking to Congress about this activity, "Star Wars" supremo George Lucas passionately stated that "People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians...In the future it will become even easier for old negatives to become lost and be “replaced” by new altered negatives...Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten". I guess your movies don't count then, George?

The memory:

Destination Docklands

Electronic musical genius Jean-Michel Jarre had become a big part of my life by 1988. Thanks to my brother's friend Alan I'd been introduced to his music around the time that "Magnetic Fields" was released and I'd never looked back, buying each album as it was released and playing them over and over again. Jarre had also become known for his large elaborate concerts - which featured lasers, fireworks and images being projected on the sides of tall buildings. When it was announced that, at the peak of his popularity, he would be bringing his show to the UK in support of the release of new album "Revolutions", I was obviously extremely keen to attend. Named "Destination Docklands", it would be using the partially derelict  Royal Victoria Dock in London as its backdrop, as Jarre felt the industrial, desolate environment with its cranes, warehouses and grain silos was suited for his music. Who wouldn't want to be part of that once-in-a-lifetime experience? There was just one teensy problem - I was going to be on holiday for two weeks in September and wouldn't you know it, that was exactly when the concert was due to take place on 24th September.

Oh well, I guess I was destined not to see the great man live. I wasn't about to cancel a long-planned and very expensive trip overseas. That was that. Or was it....?

Earlier in the year Jarre and his team had met with officials from Newham Borough Council to discuss the project. This was to be a huge event. Hundreds of thousands of people. Massive lighting rigs, Pyrotechnics. Lasers. A floating stage. Repainting the facade of the Spillers Millennium Mills building for the projections. The logistics were staggering. Expressing strong concerns about the size of the thing and the associated safety fears (not to mention getting that many people in and out of the area), the council did the usual bureaucratic thing and took an absolute age to make a decision, finally rejecting the application outright on 12th September - just a few days before I was due to fly out to the USA.

Such was the disappointment that the decision made the UK news headlines - after all it had been planned as the biggest show of it's kind the country had ever seen. I felt slightly better about things though, I couldn't miss out on something that wasn't going to happen anyway could I? So I relaxed and proceeded to go off and enjoy my holiday. Goodbye London, hello Epcot.

Meanwhile though, Jarre was persevering with his planning application and spent a two hectic weeks looking for alternative locations, while still working on the Docklands site in the hope that he could satisfy the councillors issues. This was all still big news, even thousands of miles away in Florida (Jarre had experienced somewhat similar difficulties with his "Rendez-vous Houston" concert a few years previous). Semi-regular phone calls back to my parents in the UK and the media coverage meant I was aware of all the twists and turns, and this glimmer of a resurrection meant that my excitement levels began to rise. Maybe, just maybe, fate might have turned in my favour...

Eventually Jarre's tenacity paid off, and after making some logistical changes - and most significantly splitting the concert across two nights (thus reducing the attendance numbers for each one) - he won conditional approval on 28th September for two shows to take place on the 8th and 9th of October. I can't recall if those with unused tickets from the aborted 24th September performance could still use them for the new date or if they were refunded and had to apply again - the vital thing was that *new* tickets were going on sale and everyone could apply. But hang on, I wasn't back in the country until 1st October - they would have sold out by the time I got home! No internet back then either of course, so no way of buying things online. You had to call a sales office in person. Frantically I used the expensive hotel phone to contact my friend Neil and arranged with him that he would make the all-important call and do his utmost to get tickets for all of us. Eventually after several anxious hours, word reached my brother and I in Florida. Success ! We were going to the Sunday performance!

Building work contained in Docklands at a frenzied rate in order to be ready in time for early October. The 30m by 40m floating "battleship" stage on which Jarre and his musicians were to perform was constructed on top of huge steel barges towed down from the north of England. Large purpose-built display screens were erected along, with World War II searchlights positioned on rooftops. The buildings were painted white. A giant mirror ball mean for the event fell into the road during transportation and for a while was confused for a fallen satellite. Anticipation was building. This was epic stuff. Meanwhile with a just a few days to go my friends and I planned how we would get to the venue.

Eventually the weekend of the concerts came, and with it one final set of problems for the Frenchman - the unpredictable British weather. A howling force seven gale hampered final preparations. That giant stage (and the 400 tonnes of material on board) was meant to float back and forth along the dock, but the increasingly inclement weather meant that concerns that it might break free from its moorings put paid to that idea. The Saturday was the wettest day of the year and rain lashed the temporary grandstands and dock area. Nothing could dampen anyone's enthusiasm however and the first show went ahead as planned. Then it was our turn.

We made our way to London (and again my memory fails me as I can't remember if that was by car or train. Not important I guess). In any case as we walked closer to the venue there was a veritable buzz in the air. Hordes of people were arriving from every direction. Not everyone had tickets - some had come just to see the light show and fireworks from a distance. The streets and parks were full. The sky alight with searchlights. Closer still the stewards herded us like willing sheep into the muddy area before the stage and up to the seating - the vast cranes towering over us as we waited patiently. The sun began to set - and then the rain began to pour down.

Finally when the darkness was complete and everyone was in place,  the searchlights dropped. A solitary green hued laser light pierced out of the darkness with a "woosh"  and the windows of the building in front of us turned red as the crowds cheered wildly. As the opening bars of "Industrial Revolution - Overture" boomed out, Jean-Michel Jarre appeared in the spotlight slowly walked down some steps - dressed in a smart aquamarine long jacket - with a roadie holding a large umbrella to shield him from the worst of the weather. As the music soared so did the first of the fireworks into the night sky. When the first piece finished Jarre punched his fist in the air in celebration. Despite the awful weather, he was determined to enjoy himself.

Well that's what you can see him do on the video recording of the whole event. To be honest the rain by this point was very heavy, and I was far enough back from the stage (which was also slightly to the right) that all I could see was a coloured blob in the distance. Then one of my friends handed me a pair of binoculars that he had cleverly thought to bring along and everything came into focus - until I had to hand them to the next person anyway. I pitied some of the others at the furthest reaches of the grandstand. They must have wondered exactly where the Frenchman was twiddling his knobs and playing his laser harp.

Not that it mattered really. Jarre's shows have always been about the experience as a whole and in this respect he didn't disappoint. If anything the wind and rain added to the drama and he carried on regardless of the buffeting gusts (at one point in between tracks he even jokes that "Frogs like rain"...). Synchronous with the music that I knew so well  were more fireworks and lights and images than I had ever experienced before. Spectacular doesn't even begin to cover it. In fact, take a look for yourself at this excerpt from the official release which really shows the extent of the weather and the scale of the concert:


The piece being played is one of my favourites, "Fourth Rendez-Vous". That grinning guitarist at the end with Jarre? That's the legendary Hank Marvin from "The Shadows", one of the most influential musicians of the 60s and 70s. He appears on the track "London Kid" on the "Revolutions" album but was present throughout other parts of the night. There was also a choir from Mali on stage for "September" - a tribute to South African political activist Dulcie September who had been assassinated early in the year. There were tracks from all of Jarre's albums, each accompanied by amazing visuals and enthusiasm from the 100,000 attendees.

Eventually the show came to a conclusion with another massive burst of fireworks and my friends and and I made our long way home - cold and very wet, but extremely happy. Despite all the odds and the setbacks, Jarre had pulled off something truly special and thanks to good luck, we had memories that have lasted a lifetime.

Honourable mentions:
  • Who Framed Roger Rabbit - I'm not including this film on the list because it's a live action / animation mash up classic with wonderful characters, a fantastic plot and more cartoon guest stars than you can shake a stick at (plus of course Jessica Rabbit, the first animated lady to make men of any age feel a little bit funny...).Those things are all a given and any one of them make it deserving of being in any countdown of genuinely amazing movies. No it's here because of *where* I saw it....
  • In the heady days of the late 1980s there was still a significant gap between cinema releases in the US and the UK. - in this case it was going to be nearly six months before we Brits would get to see this hotly anticipated, highly unusual production. I'd read all about it in "Empire" magazine already and was pretty excited. Then as I mentioned earlier, I went to Florida for two weeks holiday with my brother in mid-September - ostensibly to do the whole Disney thing - but we also took in Kennedy Space Centre, Rosie O' Grady's Good Time Emporium, Wet 'n' Wild, Busch Gardens, Sea World, etc,etc. On a rare day of downtime in the packed schedule, we found ourselves in the local giant shopping mall and adjoining multiplex cinema (something the UK was only just starting to get). To our surprise "Roger Rabbit" was still playing and a showing was about to start. We couldn't believe it and quickly bought tickets. As great as the film was, I think we were more excited that we were seeing it way before any of our friends!
  • Killer Klowns from Outer Space  - Remember how last week I mentioned that horror films are not really my favourite genre? Well here's one of the exceptions to the rule, and it's more of a low budget slightly scary science fiction comedy than anything else. Plus, everybody hates clowns, right? The basic plot might be simple - mysterious clown-like aliens descend to Earth and attempt to kill all the inhabitants of a sleepy American town - but it's the imaginative and touch-in-cheek nature of how they do it (and how the townsfolk defend themselves) that makes this a thoroughly enjoyable 82 minutes. Where else could you see toy guns that fire deadly popcorn, a balloon animal dog that comes to life, a human puppet show and aliens that use a crazy straw to drink the liquefied remains of their victims (I knew Doctor Who had ripped off that little old lady in "Smith & Jones" from somewhere...) One of those movies that the word "cult" was invented for.
  • Batman: The Killing Joke - Some say that this is the definitive Batman / Joker story. There is no doubt that it's a brilliant read and is beautifully drawn, plus it's influence on DC continuity in subsequent decades has been immense, especially in relation to Barbara Gordon as Batgirl / Oracle. But I'm just not so sure it's the solid gold classic everyone make it out to be. Even Moore and Bolland don't rate it as their best work (and Moore of course has "dis-owned" everything he ever did for DC).
  • Doctorin' The Tardis - I'm a "Doctor Who" fan, of *course* I bought the 12" version of this. It got to number one! It's a novelty song naturally, that mixes the TV shows theme music with dodgy 70s rocker Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll (Part Two) plus samples of Sweet's "Blockbuster" and catchphrases by comedian Harry Enfield's boorish plasterer Loadsamoney - put together by the gents behind "The Justified Agents of Mu-Mu" and "The KLF", The music press naturally hated it, but the public took it to there hearts and it sold millions of copies around the world. Why the Ford Galaxie car "frontman"? No idea, but it's a harmless bit of fun for two a half minutes. Judge for yourself...
  • Tad Williams - The Dragonbone Chair - The first in the epic fantasy trilogy "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" which deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as a certain series by George R.R. Martin. It may have less sex and violence and more traditional fantasy elements but it's the depth of William's characters (and the sheer number of them), the time he takes to build his world and the fact that he subverts many of the tropes of the genre while embracing others in new ways that make the whole sequence so memorable. That and the books are really, really long. I still don't know if I've read anything better. Tad's other books aren't too shabby either.
  • Black Kiss - Probably one of the the most controversial comics of the late 80s, primarily because of the explicit sexual content. Howard Chaykin's hard-boiled thriller is decent enough, but it's the nature of some of the scenes which forced publishers Vortex to seal each issue in a plastic bag so that under-age children couldn't peek inside - that was a big thing in the comic shops. Nowadays I'm not sure anyone would even bat an eyelid.
  • Young Einstein - Didn't you know that Albert Einstein was really a Tasmanian who discovered the theory of relativity while trying to add bubbles to beer and invented rock and roll, the electric guitar and surfing? Well 'Yahoo' Serious did and he made a movie about it. It's a slapstick comic fantasy and very, very silly - but at the time I really loved it for some strange reason. Serious is like a proto-Jim Carrey, all rubber facial expressions and odd movements, but there is a kind of innocent charm running through all the nonsense.  It's years since I've watched it though, so goodness knows what I would make of it now.
  • Mr Jolly Lives Next Door - If "Destination Docklands" hadn't been such a big thing in 1988, then this would have been in the premier spot. There are many superb episodes of "The Comic Strip Presents...", but only one which has such personal importance that I can quote large swathes of it to this day. There is a seven year gap between my sister and I, and this is the film which really brought us together as she hit her teenage years. 
  • Rik and Ade run the "Dreamytime Escorts" agency (tagline 'Escorts Bestcorts. Come in if you're saucy!'). This basically involves them swindling foreign tourists into take them on a binge drinking tour at their expense or stealing booze from Heimi Henderson's off-licence situated below their office. Next door lives Mr Jolly, a psychopathic contract killer, played by the manic Peter Cook. Intercepting an envelope meant for Jolly containing a wad of cash and a request to "take out" TV presenter Nicholas Parsons, the pair embark on a booze-filled trip to meet him at the Dorchester hotel, spending the cash for the hit on 1,574 gin and tonics. Much violence, death and destruction ensues, which also involves the music of Tom Jones, some exploding tonic water and the competition winning catchphrase "Never ever bloody anything ever".

  • I've just had my 50th birthday as I write this and the card my sister sent me is one of those you can design yourself online by adding your own pictures. At the top on the front are images of Nicholas Parsons, Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmonson in "Mr Jolly". Our love for this one-off comedy is that deep and has lasted that long. I'm sure I'll be ninety and still be laughing at this classic.