Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Man of mystery

Who wrote that, then?Hope your Christmi were as splendid as ours, brimming with red wine and roast goose.

In amongst the exciting haul of goodies from yesterday, the Dr has left me a condundrum. My Droo Stoyrbook 2007 is signed by a mysterious stranger.

Anyone any ideas on whose hasty handwriting this is?

Off shortly to see Night at the Museum (it's research so the good Dr says). Expect an answer by the time I fetch back.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Not now, Bernard

“‘ People like to read about someone who is deeper in the shit than they are,’ [Bernard] said. In fact the real reason for his popularity was much less cynical and cruel: people like to read about someone who broke all the rules, who drank and smoked far too much, who was rude about feminists, homosexuals and ethnic minorities, who was politically utterly incorrect, who behaved outrageously, and yet who somehow survived and even managed to surround himself with an ever-increasing harem of beautiful women.”

Graham Lord, Just the One – the wives and times of Jeffrey Bernard, pp. 229-230.

I was first made aware of Jeffrey Bernard by reading a newspaper obituary. In the photo, a glut of uncommon celebrities jostled one another at the wake. And in the background, ignoring the camera, Tom Baker propped up the bar.

Tom was one of many contributors to Graham Lord’s 1992 biography. Jeff had just turned 60 when the book first came out (the link above is to a posthumous reissue), and it’s telling with what surprise his acquaintances saw him to lesser decades. He really did himself no favours.

The book is a catalogue of stupid and greatly pissed behaviour – Jeff being sick on the Queen Mother and shagging the wives of his mates. I struggled with a tale about a Christmas tree that got taken on a pub crawl because I kept expecting it to be some sort of euphemism. No, they really did mix a tree’s drinks.

Rude, snobbish and just as much lazy as pissed, Jeff spent years stumbling between jobs that would pay for his drinking before finding a role as a writer. He stuck broadly to just the two topics for all his subsequent career: racing and the “low life” of being out on the lash. Lord argues that really it was all just one topic: Bernard on loss as a loser.

One editor, Alexander Chancellor, says of him in the book,
“‘I can’t think of anybody else in journalism who writes only, only about themselves. It’s a considerable achievement, I think, to (a) do nothing at all except drink, and (b) be able to write about it ever single week and still be interesting.’”

Ibid., p. 230.

Most boozers just couldn’t do that. That you got something – a joke or a smile or an article – explains how Jeff persevered. He’d scrounge hand-outs and floorspace off anyone, and sex off girls who could surely do better.

For all he’s a monster and alienated his friends, Jeff knew how to turn on the charm. Irma Kurtz said he had a smile like
“‘a little devil caught out in an act of charity.’”

Ibid., p. 255.

Tom who, flush as the fourth Droo, bought him a couple of suits, says that Jeff at least sang for his supper. Bernard, not the drinking, was witty and exciting. He was an exception to the borish, dull alkie – a bit apart from the other self-destructing regulars. His writing can be keenly observant and hilarious, and even Jeff is often bored by his lifestyle. He is less a role model as a warning.

Yes, there’s something salaciously thrilling about someone who breaks all the rules. But I also think there’s an appeal in the distance – he’s funny so long as he’s happening to other people. Jeff could make those near him miserable, and was not very fond of himself.

It’s also affirmative and good for finger wagging to see the depths that beckon a man who won’t bother with bills and a mortgage.

(As well as talking to Tom himself, the book also makes mention of Jon Pertwee (p. 126) and David Tennant (p. 79).)

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Do not fear fluffiness

Our Bumper Book of Daleks is just reaching people, a hair's breadth prior to Christmas. Hooray!

As a special bonus, you can read online for free - yes free! - the story I pinched from based on the Dr's own PhD. Mrs Guerrier, she so proud of me.

To read "The Eighth Wonder of the World", click on the link immediately below the book's cover at the webpage given above.

Babel-fish pizza

Entertaining, boozy meet with chums in Paddington last night, where I may have veered into ranty. Sorry, R., who will be reading this.

Much joy in translating the pizzas. "Fiesta del carne" sounds more posh than plain old "Meat feast".

But you could also read it as "Flesh party".

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

That’s no moon

Escape is a fixture in escapist fiction. Our heroes look sly and resourcedul when they can break out of cells, baddie bases and countries using only bits of tin can and their shoelaces.

In fact, it’s a bit of a cliché. One not uncommon criticism of my own “The Time Travellers” is that the austere detention centre on Byng Street is daringly escaped-from twice. (I argue (not entirely winningly) that this is in keeping with the spirit of Old Show.)

I guess escapology’s appeal comes from real escapes, most famously those during wars. Until recently, I’d always associated them with the second world war – and even the Imperial War Museum’s escape show last year focused on Steve McQueen’s moped and Colditz.

But Winston Churchill’s first dalliance as national hero was in 1899, when he escaped from a POW camp in Pretoria.

More recently, Neil Gaiman admitted that he and magician Penn Jillette are working on a film version of a real First World War escape. Hilary Bevan Jones – whose Endor Productions won awards for the fab “State of Play” – spoke of it, too, a few years ago:

“My big ambition is to make the film of my grandfather's book, ‘The Road to Endor’. It's a true story of how he escaped from a Turkish prison camp during the First World War. David Lean had it optioned for years, but it's back in the family again. I only just feel grown-up enough to make it now!”

Liz Hoggard, “All my own work”, The Guardian, 21 March 2004

On Gaiman’s recommendation, I sought out the book via Abe.

Lieutenant EH Jones tells of a plucky confidence trick, played out over more than a year. As much from boredom as anything, the imprisoned Jones fakes a Ouija board session, and pretends he’s in touch with the spirits.

But rather than making his comrades laugh, they start to take him in deadly earnest. Jones, you see, can remember the board even blindfolded…

"The growth of a belief is difficult to describe, for growth is not a matter of adding one piece here and another there. It is not an addition at all, it is a process; and the most that can be done in describing it is to state a few of the outstanding events and say, ‘this marks one stage in the process, that another.’ … In any investigation each point as it is reached is subjected to proof. Once passed as proved it forms in its turn part of the foundation for a further advance in belief. It is the part of the investigator to make certain he does not admit as correct a single false deduction. If he does the whole of his subsequent reasoning is liable to be affected.

It is particularly easy, in a question like spiritualism, to allow fallacy to creep in. There is a basis of curious phenomena which certainly exist and are recognised by scientists as indubitable facts. But the investigator must be careful, in every instance, to assure himself that he is in the presence of the genuine phenomenon, and not of an imitation of it, and, as a matter of fact, this is sometimes impossible to do."

EH Jones, "The Road to En-Dor", p. 23.

Soon the Turkish warders have been snared in the scam, Jones and partner Lieutenant Hill winning small allowances for the other POWs. The camp itself is the former home of now-missing Armenians – the book speaks of the massacre quite openly. So Jones uses the promise of hidden Armenian treasure, and the threat of the spirits’ revenge, to attempt a brilliant escape.

Eric Williams (who wrote the best-selling “The Wooden Horse”) introduces the whole thing as, “for sheer ingenuity, persistence and skill … second to none among such books”.

It’s certainly a funny book, lively book full of vivid characters and set-ups. I was also surprised in the footnotes by how many of those comrades mentioned tried their own escapes – and went on to write their own books about them.

The mechanics of the trick and the ways they fool doubters are explained in some detail, and I can see the appeal to a mage like Jillette. The plan does not all go swimmingly either, and several times nearly kills the two tricksters. As a result, it becomes less about the scam but the steely determination with which the two blokes see it through.

That said, the telling is often disjointed narrative, jumping back and forth between years and incidents, so sometimes not easy to follow. There’s a hell of a lot of place names and people to remember, and the tangents and asides could have been more effectively edited.

Part conman’s handbook, part military history, part pot-boiling shocker, it’s a compelling – if not always easy – read. And cor, there’s a brilliant movie in there. So do get a shift on with that, Neil.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Sprained his wrist writing sonnets

(Just switched to Beta Blogger on the promise of all kinds of cleverness. Hope it doesn't not go snafu.)

Okay, I admit that I read 1599 to swot up for next year’s Droo. Pretty sure that’s why I got bought it, too. Not that I’m sure it will help:
“I cut myself off from reading anything about Shakespeare, went on what I knew already, and then checked afterwards. … I didn’t want to read James Shapiro’s book 1599 … in case I got bogged down.”

Gareth Roberts, interviewed by Rex Duis, “Script Doctors”, Dr Who Magazine 377 (3 January 2007), p. 13.

Well, it’s still a rich and lively book, whatever Gareth says. It avoids the usual failing of literary biography (as I’ve discussed with Wodehouse) – not so comprehensively linking the elements in his stories to influences surrounding him that it’s like Will was less creator than copyist. But Shapiro is also keen to show that Shakespeare’s work is not timeless, and that far all he was a transcendent genius, he was very much of his age.

1599 is when Shakespeare hits it big. The year begins with the construction of the famous Globe Theatre, in which he himself had a stake. Shapiro explores the mechanics and economics of that investment, and then the politics and practical necessities that influenced the writing of “Henry V”, “Julius Caesar”, “As You Like It” and “Hamlet”.

As well as some heavy-going analysis of particular snippets of play, it’s full of facts and detail. I discussed the relevance of 17 November back on, er, 17 November. Neat.

In exploring the adventures of the Earl of Essex and his ill-fated trip to Ireland, there’s something broader to be said about the fickleness of heroism. Essex’s collapse from grace is just as wild, explosive and tragic as the stuff what’s in Shakespeare’s writing.

We also get a sense of the wide, heady mix of high and low cultures which Shakespeare had to straddle. His works were performed for the old Queen amid the sumptuous decorations of Whitehall. Yet they also needed to win an audience from the bear baiting and cock fights crowding the rascally South Bank.

It’s little wonder then that his peers were taking risks, writing stuff that would get them fined or even land them in prison. Our Will seems to have deftly dodged anything too controversial, while retaining a verve and topicality that appealed to all classes of folk. (Shapiro’s also good on how plays would be taken off when events made them a little too topical…)

There’s also some fun detail about everyday practicalities – that bookshops would have very individual stock, and that without any copyright a book of Shakespeare’s poetry wasn’t necessarily all by him.

I was also enraptured by the consequences that follow from news being so slow to travel. There’s some mystery about how many weeks elapsed before Will heard of the death of his son. More fun is the courtly entanglements as London is unable to prove one way or another if England has just been invaded.

All in all, it’s a vivid animation of late-Tudor London, rich, sweaty and teeming with life. Especially so, as I read it in Florence, which I said had the same kind waterfront of crowded, timber dwellings seen in the cockney models of “A Knight’s Tale” and Olivier’s “Henry V”.

Two more top facts: 1599 was also the year that Oliver Cromwell was born. And I’m strangely pleased by the word crucifige (“Crucify him”), given on p. 208.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

"I didn't want it to end."

Codename Moose summed up our feelings in those six words.

Pan’s Labyrinth is another wondrous strange creation from Guillermo del Toro: mesmerising, scary and brilliant.

Ofelia follows her very pregnant mother to an army camp deep in the woods. Mother’s new husband is a captain for Franco’s new regime, putting down the last of the communists at the tail end of the second world war. He’s violent and vicious and cares only for his unborn son.

But nearby in the wood is an ancient labyrinth, a dark and foreboding portal to powers ancient and terrifying. If Ofelia can complete three tasks for the Faun, she’ll be granted her dearest wishes...

Like del Toro’s previous "The Devil's Backbone", the film mixes up the real awful history of the Spanish civil war with fantasy no less alarming. It’s just as unsettling to watch the military barbarity as the gaunt, eyeless monster that guards a lush banqueting table.

It’s also reminiscent of CS Lewis’s "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" – especially the recent film, which made the second world war more explicit. Ofelia is a more put-upon Lucy, and this Faun isn’t offering her tea.

I talked not-quite-a-year-ago of how it’s only us adults who are freaked by horrid things done to and by children. We’re the ones to harbour fantasies of childish innocence and kindness. Children know, from school and everyday life, that children are full of vicious and untempered cruelty.

Still, we could also see why Neil Gaiman was in trouble for taking his littlest to see this one.

Speaking of which, this morning I finished his Fragile Things – a collection of short stories, poems and bits of idea.

Gaiman has often been rather cosily strange, with the feel of a Grimm’s fairy tale read by an open fire. Yet many of the stories here are thuggish and nasty, lacking what Susanna Clarke has called his "Wodehousian generosity of spirit", which made "Anansi Boys" and "Stardust" so appealing. There are zombies and gangsters and paedophiles and killers in this, with no redeeming features whatever.

Where Gaiman’s at his best is creating characters we care about, and then exploring the strange realms from behind their eyes. The final novella, "Monarch of the Glen" revisits one of the gangsters from a previous entry, who is no less powerful of scary than when we last met him.

Yet, by telling the story from the perspective of Shadow (the same character as from the novel "American Gods"), and detailing Shadow’s own qualms and uncertainties, it’s a much kinder feeling adventure.

"The Problem of Susan" is another haunting highlight, revisiting the spurned Queen of Narnia. It confronts her brusque dispatch in "The Last Battle" – where she’s the only one of her siblings not allowed into Heaven because she’s too fond of lipstick. More than that, it confronts the psycho-sexual elements implicit in that distinction, and the cruel way the other Pevensie’s find their way to paradise (Lewis kills them all off in a train crash).
"There is so much in the [Narnia] books that I love, but each time I found the disposal of Susan to be intensely problematic and deeply irritating. I suppose I wanted to write a story that would be equally as problematic … if from a different direction."

Neil Gaiman, Introduction to Fragile Things, p. xxii.

With reference to other strange children’s fictions like Mary Poppins and Dahl’s Mathilda, it manages to be something more altogether about the faults and something extra with which we fill up our kids.

Think my favourite is the opening "A Study in Emerald", which nicely twists the classic Holmesian short on its head. Not only does that there link let you read the whole story, but Wikipedia then goes and explains it.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Man? Police man?

Terrific concern this afternoon that we might be in work a bit later, as a result of Mr Blair going to see Mr Knacker.
"Look... I really want to help put the matter straight and I'll answer any questions you have. But had you ever considered how you might one day fancying being Lord Knacker?

Come on, I've a flight booked to Finland..."
Anyway, we did add on a whole thirteen minutes, which I don't think qualifies us for any compensation under rules for the victims of crime. Were it to turn out that anything untoward had gone on, which of course is completely unlikely.

I just await the chaps finishing before we fall at the pub. So don't want to start getting into anything too postie.

Why not go visit my new friend Alex and see his fun Die-cast movie. And then go see all the treats Ebb of Weevil has currently on display.

Normal service to be resumed sometime. I have read books and done thinking and everything.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Vic sounded like a truck driver"

The Dr is out tonight having tea with a friend, and I’ve been left lonely and plotting.

My thinking cap sits at a rakish angle following a chance encounter. All kinds of treasure is being drawn forth – space wars and recreational incest, a computer with a headache, some murder, some foam, no clothes and a cliff-hanging window.

A late self-addressed note compels "ONLY MORE AND MUCH WEIRDER". Need it written up before pubbing on Saturday.

This elan of grey matter is all rather welcome. For days I’ve been grouchy and about to explode, “What the bloody-hell-cock is a Wii?”

Don’t write in, as I now have the edge of the premise. It’s like a souped up VIC 20 with crazy more games. (Though sadly, that doesn’t mean an Amstrad; not even one with its very own disk drive.)

On a not unrelated tangent, is it only me filled with incandescent rage when adverts leave off the word “pounds”? Computers for “just three-nine-five” and cars “starting from six-seven-nine-nine”... they’re more like odds than prices.

Perhaps it’s a ploy so we forget they mean money, and the corresponding toil in the workplace.

Or perhaps they accept payment in other kinds of currency – like 395 dreams or 6,799 kittens.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Avon calling

Well what else would the headline be? My chums at B7Media have announced their thrill-packed new Blake’s 7 audio series, which has just finished being recorded.

At last it’s all done and public, having heard hushed bits about it for a while. Writers Ben, Marc and James have all scribbled for me in the last year and yet remained frustratingly discrete. Git monkeys.

Like you didn't know, it's a gruff bit of space opera about a gruff dude called Roj Blake - on TV a rare Welsh sci-fi hero. Framed for crimes he didn't commit by the Earth's nasty, dictatorial Federation, he teams up with a gang of ne'er-do-well rascals and runs off in a spaceship called "Liberator". Which is a clue to what he's intending...

I have vague memories from the end of the old-school version – that oft-repeated shot of Scorpio docking in its garage, a barely understood crush on Dayna, and Avon being glad to learn Servalan’s still alive because he wants to kill her himself.

Years later, about the same time my love of Dr Who proper burgeoned, my friend B. had the early run of Blake’s 7 videos, where a whole series was cropped down to 90 minutes. Cutting anything that wasn’t essential to the plot, these movies were simply amazing – fast and dark and twisty and (of most importance) violent.

They pretty much spoilt the series for me, because those full episodes I’ve seen seem so ponderous and dull. Just skip to the end, Mr Vila.

The new series promises zippy five-minute episodes, and the (re-)cast is monstrously exciting. Blake shall be played by Derek Riddell (of the Torchwood Estate – as opposed to Gareth Thomas of a Torchwood terrace), and James Bond’s Colin Salmon is Avon. Cor.

I’m trying to recall which of my chums had a peculiar thing for Daniela Nardini, who’ll be vamping it up as New Servalan. Was it you, Liadnan? Are you now very excited?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Scaredy-cats and soft death balls

On Saturday I attended a glittering soiree on the occasion of a very first birthday. Gorged on fizz and finger food, which included a New Zealish delicacy.

“Fairy bread” is buttered white bread cut into animal shapes, then sprinkled o’er with hundreds and thousands. It’s sickly sweet, has no redeeming or nutritional features whatever, but earned hearty cheers from my inner eight year-old.

S. handed me a copy of Wholphin 2, which Nimbos and I then watched that evening. It seems largely an excuse to release the first part of “The Power of Nightmares”, Adam Curtis’s contentious BBC documentary linking the rise of both the American neo-conservatives and radical Islamic groups, arguing that both are against liberal society and the Soviet Union, and both like to start people fighting...

Not surprisingly, this thesis has met with a certain amount of heckling. The BBC boasts highlights from more than 3,000 comments, “reflecting the balance and range of views we have received”.

Terror is an emotive subject (well, d’uh) and a lot of the reaction seems along the lines of “But terrorists exist!” This is rather missing the point of a documentary about how our fears have been encouraged and manipulated by both terrorists and members of our own governments.

There have been terrorists before, the argument goes, so why is al-Qaeda so different?

The documentary has not been shown in the USA, and Wholphin proclaims it “the film US TV networks dare not show” (as according to the Grauniad). On Wikipedia, Curtis claims a network head told him “We would get slaughtered if we put this out”.

The film is available as a free, legal download and has been shown at film festivals and in Canada. The Australian showing was postponed for five months, following the London bombings.

So why has it not been released on DVD before? On Wholphin, it’s provided as a bonus disc, and the sleeve notes add to the dark whiff of conspiracy by suggesting it might still be excised:
“If there is no Power of Nightmares in your package, it means that something went horribly wrong and the retailer was asked to remove the film.”
Which implies some terrible censorship, whether voluntary (on the part of suppliers or distributors) or enforced by the Powers That Are. However, Curtis’s own comments from last year offer another explanation:
“The films are full of archive film and music from a multitude of sources. The reason my series are normally not released on DVD is that it is prohibitively costly and a nightmare - no pun intended - to clear the rights.”

Adam Curtis, “Power of Nightmares re-awakened”,
BBC News, 26 April 2005.

And this is my real problem with the documentary: you're not always sure what is verifiable fact and what is brave supposition.

Curtis uses archive footage to make his points, rather than giving those he critiques any right to reply. His targets' arguments are undercut by fast cutting between contradictory statements – like a headline on a news programme that’s the opposite of what some authority has said. So Curtis gets to make his claims pretty much unchallenged.

I’ve heard it argued that this is okay because his film is a “personal essay”, an invitation to debate the issues that he raises. And though I appreciate that he’s taking arms against a whopping great ocean of struggles, it still feels a little one-sided. Like kids shooting peas at policemen, it’s a challenge to authority, yes, but not exactly going to change the system.

The problem with the essay is that Curtis does what he accuses his targets of, and tells us what to think. If he wants a debate, why not have a debate? Or what is he afraid of?

The rest of the DVD was much more satisfying. I’ve never been quite won over by McSweeney’s (responsible for the DVD), whose beautifully packaged publications are often more pretentious than profound. That’s true of the Auster-lite “Home, James, and Don’t Spare the Horses”, about an artist being groomed to be shocking, and of Soderbergh’s ponderous “Building No. 7”, and of Donald Trump discussing Citizen Kane in “The Movie Movie”.

But there are jems, too. We loved “Okusama wa Majo” – the Japanese version of Bewitched, only subtitled by the jokers from The Daily Show. The animated “More” and “The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello” were strange and Goth and moving. “The Mesmerist” is a haunting retelling of the warped and broken footage from an anti-Semitic film from the 1920s starring Boris Karloff, and – best of all – “Sour Death Balls” shows different people struggling to chew on a not very pleasant sweet.

No, it wasn’t more of the fairy bread.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Code and Carthage

Spent today mostly playing with virtual building blocks. Anchor tags don’t seem to work across pages, but that may just be a thing with the management system preview. Feel like I’ve achieved something at the end of the day, but it’s been fiddly and a long time in coming.

Ah, but it’s a fun excuse to flex my HTML. Look on my works when they’re live, ye mighty, and despair.

Usual pub last night to see lots of splendid people for far too little a time. Talked lay-out of a forthcoming project, and the level of 15 in-jokes on something else. Also got to meet Mitch Benn, who spoke tantalisingly and cryptically of his Mysterious Neil Gaiman Project.

So I did the same back at him about the forthcoming war with Draconians. Bwah ha ha.

The Dr is having fun in Tunisia, and has been to both Tunis and Carthage. She’s back on Sunday, so I’ll need to have done some washing and vacuuming by then.

"Have lots of turkish delight 4 mothers" she texted. But what of delights for me?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Rose and the Ruby

Fun night out at the special NFT preview of “The Ruby in the Smoke” last night. Many of the cast and crew were also there, and after the showing m’colleague Matthew Sweet asked questions of Philip Pullman (who wrote the book), Adrian Hodges (who adapted it) and JJ Feild (who plays Fred ).

Soon after the death of her father at sea, Veronica "Sally" Lockhart (Billie Piper) receives an illiterate warning that she too is in danger. Soon she’s killed a man and is running for her life, pursued by the vicious Mrs Holland (Julie Walters)…

It’s a sumptuous, break-neck adventure – perhaps a little too much plot crammed into the time, and sometimes tricky to follow. Since it’s consciously aping the penny dreadful thriller, perhaps an episodic version would have worked a bit better, on the same model as last year’s Bleak House.

I also thought the whole thing owed much to the Sign of Four, only told from the perspective of the future Mrs Watson.

The cast are all strong, Julie Waters brilliantly grotesque, and it’s good to see Billie in her first starring role. However, the rocketing plot means there’s little chance to show much depth of character. Grisly killings pepper the story from start to finish, so there’s also little time to get to know many of the supporting players.

Brian Percival also directed the stunning North and South, and there’s a similar richness of detail in this adaptation. The historical accuracy is a little off, though – you didn’t get opium dens until the very end of the 19th century, when the stuff was no longer available freely and legally. And nor would a Victorian girl have ever heard the word “spiv”.

But as Pullman said in answer to a question, he’s happy to ignore the historical facts in favour of a gripping adventure. Perhaps he should read Matthew’s splendid book on the far stranger, real Victorians.

Afterwards there were drinkies and I got to meet Alex Fitch, another of Big Finish’s scribblers.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Good hunting

How things change. A mere 17 years ago today, I was a little into my third year at school – Class 3’s room on the ground floor of the main building, just a stone’s throw from the chapel.

At the end of each day, I’d run the mile-or-so to St Denys station and just catch the earlier train home. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to be home earlier, or just not to hang around in the dark for the later train. The earlier one also featured real, live girls from the schools in the centre of town.

They must have been impressed by the itchingly nervous, spotty, lanky boy in his fetching brown blazer with gold braid. Especially if I wasn’t shutting up about Dr Who or comics.

Would have got home and eaten and then settled down to watch episode 3 of “Survival”. Even then, Dr Who was a guilty pleasure – a video of “Brain of Morbius” had proven it wasn’t as good as it used to be, and the schoolmates who dared watch the new stuff spoke of it only in whispers.

But “Survival” seemed like something else, strange and new and amazing. Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, is turning into a wild cat lady, egged on by cat lady Kara (Lisa Bowerman). The Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) pursues Ace, hoping to coax her from the lusty desires to do nothing but fight and feast.

It all ties in to script editor Andrew Cartmel’s efforts to develop Ace’s character, and grow her up on screen. Gary Gillatt has also pointed out how similar the feel and locations and emotional depth are to the first new episode, “Rose”.

Yes, the effects are a bit wobbly, the animatronic cats and the Cheetah People make-up are a bit crude, and there’s a rather odd bit when the Doctor plays chicken on a motorbike.

Yet sun-drenched and bright from a mid-summer filming, the coloured-in skies of the Cheetah People’s world are actually rather epic. Anthony Ainley gives his best and most scary performance of the Master, and gives Sylvester something to step up to. Their final confrontation is played as a stand off between two small gods.

Rona Munro’s clever script is also crammed with stuff that my 13 year-old brain was only just starting to notice. There’s this slow-motion sequence of Ace running after Kara...

And at the end Ace has left home – “home” is now the TARDIS, and she and the Doctor walk off to thrilling new adventures, just as the Beeb pulled the plug. (I didn’t know that until a year later, when I started getting DWM.)

But the oddest thing about all this remembrance is that on the same day, Codename Moose would have been eight.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Rien la de la de tra?

Ha ha! This blog is also available in French.

Working, not working and flying

The Big Finish website has been updated with all kinds of thing I’ve been up to and many things still yet to come. I’ve got a new Bernice Summerfield play to write and five more to edit, as well as keeping an eye on three books. I’m co-writing a book on Benny’s 15-year history, and judging a competition for new writers of Doctor Who. Lor.

That’s on top of bits and pieces that isn’t British sci-fi; writing and editing and the sort of architecture where you need not be good with your hands.

With the Dr away in Tunisia (stubbornly not making Haj to the Star Wars locations), I’d planned to spend today swinging between the branches of content management.

Computer, however, said no.

"Driver_unloaded_without_cancelling_pending_operations" explained the error message that’s taken all day to fix. Turns out a driver called cdr4_2k.sys got broken when I updated DivX – which appears not to like Windows 2000.

So from Safe Mode I stuck DivX on to a USB keyring and got it to play on my XPing laptop, enabling me to catch up with Heroes while trying to unfuck the PC.

Yes, it’s all the fault of Heroes, which I downloaded the new DivX to watch. But my giddy teeth, that’s a bit brilliant.

All across the world (well, across America, plus someone in India and someone else in Japan), normal people wake up with super powers – and all sort of headaches ensue. It’s sometimes a bit cheesy on knowing who you really are, but it’s thrilling and brutal and twisty. And there’s often that lovely thing of the twist that comes out of absolutely nowhere in retrospect seeming inevitable.

I have watched six episodes in pretty much a single sitting (just seen to the end of episode 10). No spoilers, no clues, just go watch the dyam thing.

Though it’s probably not worth trashing your computer for.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Nimbos rang last night with the awful news that Craig Hinton has died. The web has since caught up with facts and people’s memories. The same things are said: a lovely, funny bloke, always eager to share the best and most salacious gossip.

I didn’t know him well, but Craig was a fixture in the pub and on mailing lists. He was the first person I knew to pick up on the mentions of “Bad Wolf”.

My abiding memory is his telling me in strictest confidence the plot of his forthcoming novel. I giggled at thoughts of breast implants controlled by aliens and killer contact lenses.

“But don’t let anyone else here know,” he said, with a comradely twinkle. He’d told me and me alone because I was someone special.

I then watched him go person-to-person round the pub, telling everyone exactly the same thing.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Friday, December 01, 2006

First, a word from our sponsor:

"Her name was Sally Lockhart; and within fifteen minutes, she was going to kill a man."

Blurb for "The Ruby in the Smoke" (BBC, 2006)

Bit excited by the NFT preview on Wednesday, with questions hosted by m'colleague Matthew Sweet. Will report back.

Anyway. Met B. last night as he dashed through London on his way to meet his mrs in Zagreb. We went to the zippy Thai Silk, where I enjoyed a nice peanuty thing of chicken, served in a hollowed out loaf.

I remember my dad explaining that the Vikings used to eat their meals from hollowed-out crusty loaves called "trenchers". The soft bread inside was torn out and given to babies and the old, or anyone lacking in teeth.

It's true, too, and not merely a cunning wheeze to get me eating crusts. (Which I do – and other people's – hence my full crop of unbalding ringlets.) Indeed, History.uk.com has a recipe. Hooraye for ye internete.

After tea we found a corner in the King's Arms, and caught up til half-past 11. B. was appalled at this unsophistication - pubs in 'Ampshoire be open much laterer.

Like O. (and also from my old stomping grounds), B. has been working on the shell of a house, making it all spick and span again. With walls and ceilings and everything. Since last I looked, he's got all of a roof and even some spangly windows. Again, I am sorely envious of anyone who can do shit with their fingers.

But what next, I asked. And he's considering going door-to-door for the Tories. Blimey.

He left with the rest of the night to fill before his six a.m. check in, promising to bring me back a Top Fact from Croatia, and to read Paxman's Political Animal.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

What know you of ready?

It has been a while since I was last in Lewisham. The stalls are filled with Christmas tat and the reek of new-caught fish.

Somewhere deep inside the Wetherspoons, J. detailed the myriad shortcomings of something I have wrought. He provided the same sterling service for my very first piece of professionally published fiction, and I’m really very grateful.

Again, he leaves me feeling savaged yet unable to disagree:
  • What I’ve writ needs to be more visually arresting, with more stuff never seen before
  • The direction needs to be more concise and yet a whole lot more engaging
  • The dialogue needs to be simpler and more as real people speak – no “twat monkey”, “jobby” or “bumways”
  • What a person says also needs to show exactly how they think
  • Mysteries are all very lovely, but it can’t just not give any answers – that makes it all a bit too jumpy, like we’re missing the key scenes
  • Lucy’s solution is rather inelegant and more effort than it’s worth, and we should see her being smarter in how she gets just what she wants
  • Richard needs a pal in whom he can confide (i.e. on how he’s coping with the plot)
  • If we don’t like him – and we really don’t in that bit on page 52 – the whole thing’s a bit of a turn-off
  • And the ending just isn’t strong enough – it needs to really raise the stakes
It is all, damn him, entirely on the money. At least I didn’t have to somersault between trees while giving him a piggy-back.

The 75 back home was filled with notes for fixes. I remind myself that what does not kill can only make me stronger. And that Real Writers Re-Write. Hum ho.

J’s also poked me in the direction of what already prove to be two very good writing blogs: Jane Espenson (from Buffy) and Ken Levine (off of Frasier).

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fetch the engines

70 years ago tomorrow, the Crystal Palace burnt down. We were planning on going to commemorative fireworks tonight, but they start too early to get their from work. Rats.

The Crystal Palace stood in Penge Place, Sydenham for 82 years, and by the end was a bit run down anyway. Existing film footage of galas and things make it look a bit overgrown and bedraggled. And so all the more weird and exciting.

London’s second-tallest structure (after Torchwood Tower) is built on the site: the Crystal Palace transmitting station, what provides us our TV. It’s a recognisable fixture of the London skyline for miles and miles around.

The transmitter mast is approximately 6.5 times taller than the Crystal Palace was (222 metres as compared to 33, or 728 feet to 110).

So presumably you could have seen the palace from miles away too. I would love to see photos of this.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Mars, not the Arctic

Just home from a fun tea and biscuits where a commission has been finally hammered out. Joe Lidster went through his list of great concerns, and we've fingered it into swimmingity. So hooray.

Though I realised on the train home we now can't use the gag about polar bears. Curses. It's time will come.

Also seem to have been commissioned for something else, and contracts are being sent out for things that I'm in charge of. Have had a good-natured disagreement on the paradigm of Han Solo's "I know", but that all seems amicably sorted. And I've begun the painful hatchet where elsewhere we're far too long.

Of no lesser importance, we also know who'll be goosing with us on Christmas Day. And we merely await the Radio Times to schedule cheese and pudding.

None of which is of any interest to anyone but my brane. If only I had a top sort of fact - which I did, but Nimbos blogged it the same time that he told me.

If only I had someone clever in the building. Oh, hang on...

The Dr says: the establishment of the British Museum in 1753 was funded by the nation, through a "dubiously run" (she says) national lottery.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Between fact and breakfast

Have worked my way through all 25 episodes of “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” in the last few weeks.

It’s very wordy, and at its best when kept short and to the point, rather than rambling any old which way. Often the longer skits end up in them refusing to go on, like they’ve even bored themselves.

While some judicious and brutal editing would have helped, there’s still heaps of wonderful stuff. The vox pops are often especially good. I also adored the wet le Carre stylings of Tony Mercheson making coffee for Control, which manages to be quite moving.

Like Uttoxeter’s damn businessmen, Peter and John, I’d remembered them as being much more prominent throughout the run, rather than just in one series. They’re also a lot more of their time than I’d realised – Tony losing his job when the Berlin Wall comes down.

I’d remembered it as rather silly fluff, but there are frequent, angry tirades against consumerism and crassness and meaningless corporate speak. Two seasons bow out with Fry’s emotive address to camera about the turgidity of buzzwords like “choice”, “charter marks” and “leisure facilities”.

There’s also a recurring thing of showing up the silliness of accepted procedures: the former estate agents now selling petrol, and the lawyers agreeing the stages of a one-night stand.

The series covers a huge range of stuff – daytime telly and Top of the Pops to gritty drama in the mould of the Professionals, advertising, politics, semantics, various films and sports, even the life of Alan Bennett. And in large part it’s character-led stuff, with the comedy hinging on the well-observed performance and vocabulary.

That range is all the more impressive considering it’s largely just the two of them. Earlier seasons have a couple of fun one-off cameos from the likes of Paul Eddington and Nicholas Parsons, but the season 4’s “guests” doesn’t really work. It all feels a bit smug and pally, even when they’re trying to make things a little more interesting, like implying m’colleague Clive Mantle is an alkie.

(I had to turn off the extra on Season 2, a 1982 Cambridge Footlights Review, which is just toe-curlingly self-indulgent and simpering.)

And yet and yet.

What really tickles this viewing several is some very simple comedy stuff: two men dressing up as daft women; an awkward great loaf with no rhythm dancing; lots of mugging like fools at the camera.

Actually, with all the silly wigs, frocks and singing involved, I’m surprised the series isn’t more often featured in “Before they were famous”, now Laurie’s a big film star and house.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Moonshine washing line

Things, like umbrellas, that bother me:
  • Endnotes. Footnotes are so much friendlier
  • The horrid cold sat under the bridge of my nose which makes my head feel monstrously heavy and packed full of PVA glue.
  • Trying to catch up with overdue work with a horrid cold sat under the bridge of my nose which makes my head feel monstrously heavy and packed full of PVA glue.
Things, like Ackbar, that make me feel a bit better:Bleurg.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Discovery and deceit

Shouldn't really complain if the first miserable cold of the season only hits me in late November. But bleurg.

Had a good meeting yesterday from which some work may come. Did bits of other work, and then round to Nimbos's for tea. I note from his diaries that David Tennant has a very good collection of DVDs. There's all of James Bond to his lower left, and all of the West Wing lower right. And upper right: that looks like a near-as-dammit complete run of old school Dr Who. I'm sure that's research.

Dr Evelyn SmytheSpeaking of research, I recently came up with what Dr Evelyn Smythe wrote her Master's on. Evelyn (through whom I once met David Tennant, as it happens) will obviously be interested in this forthcoming lecture at the National Portrait Gallery.
"Discovery and Deceit - Charles Newton and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus"
Sunday 28 January 2007, 15:00
On the 150th anniversary of this archaeological discovery, Debbie Challis examines the controversy around who actually found the Mausoleum and the heroic cult of the archaeologist in the nineteenth century.
I'm hoping for a mention of Daleks.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Unable to sufficiently gorge her eyes

To entirely avoid Dr Who’s 43rd birthday, my Dr dragged me somewhat kicking and sneering to the theatre. Thérèse Raquin is based on a novel by Zola, who was always good for a laugh. I read another of his while still a student, but it’s not nearly as cheery as Bananarama implied.

Thérèse is bored being married to Camille, a sickly boy with a dominant mother. But Laurent, Camille’s rough and painterly friend, is another sort of matter entirely. Soon Thérèse and Laurent are plotting a little accident... With Camille drowned, at last they are free to live and love together.

They think.

Although written before Zola’s "Les Rougon-Macquart" series, there’s a lot about hereditary evil. It’s suggested that Thérèse gets her minx-like ways from her boozy scoundrel of a dad, and a mother who… well, came from Africa. I find this funny, with my African wife and love of dry sherry.

The stage adaptation by Nicholas Wright (who also did the National’s amazing "His Dark Materials") deftly keeps everything in one room, the fantastically spooky atmosphere brought about by performance and sound effects.

There’s space for it to be trimmed back a bit, especially in a repeating sequence as Thérèse and Lauret lose themselves in a green-fug of guilt and recrimination. It’s not as effective as the way dialogue comes round again to mean something slightly different.

But generally it’s very effective. Codename Moose will be pleased to note that, being a French effort, there’s the obligatory flash of bare bosom. There’s some nice comic moments thank to the supporting cast, but this is a dour and dirty horror.

In many respects it’s a ghost story, or at least one about a haunted household.

Judy Parfitt is great as Camille’s mother, especially in the last quarter when she doesn’t say a word. And I kept expecting Patrick Kennedy to appear in spectral form – if only because it’s such a shame he’s written out quite so quickly.

We entertained ourselves on the way home casting Muppet movies of Jane Eyre and The Revenger’s Tragedy. I’d also like to see a Kurosawa samurai version of Pride and Prejudice, please.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Bond Watch: Daniel Craig

The following obviously entails whopping great SPOILERS.

Go see the film.

You’ll thank me for it.

Golly, that what amazing.

Even the Dr wants to see it again.

Which never happens.

That enough space to ward off the unwary?

Right, then…

Craig is (as I predicted re: “Goldeneye” – hooray!) Her Majesty’s terrier. Just be glad he’s on our side.

Casino Royale is stylish and exciting to look at, the black-and-white pre-titles sequence establishing a mythic, noirish quality and the promise of something Quite New. The lurid animation of the titles themselves are like nothing else Bond has ever done. It’s also more about him than the pretty ladies, I notice. And for all there were worries about that tune, it works exceptionally well in context.

Lots of people have mentioned the Bourne Inheritance, though I think this Bond owes more to Jack Bauer. As well as the blond-and-blue-eyed look to the bastard, this 007 barely fits within the anti-terror outfit, and has no time for civil liberties. He’s happy to “sweat” friends to be sure they’re not baddies.

He’s a thug: fighting messily, breaking into his boss's home, not knowing how to take his vodka martinis. It’s often shockingly brutal. There’s no grace to how he fights, which makes a marked contrast to Pierce Brosnan. Pierce wouldn’t have the same trouble with the bloke in the toilet, nor crash through walls in pursuit of the lithe free-runner. They are simply not the same chap.

This also makes him unpredictable – we really don’t know how he’ll react to any situation, and that makes him even more thrilling. Knowing the ending of the book, I wondered if Bond would even try to rescue Vesper from the trapped elevator. But it’s even more surprising how desperately he tries to save her, knowing all that’s she done. In doing so, we see Bond’s capacity for mercy and love, and even a shot at redemption. This is again nothing like we’ve ever seen before.

That said, it’s still often very funny, with a hard-edged humour that works very well. Big belly laughs for Bond distracted from his game because of Vesper’s behind, and also for him asking if she’s okay when he’s the one who just carked it. The dialogue often leaves blanks for us to fill in, working the audience and demanding our attention.

Even the chases have stories to them, building the stakes and the character as Bond continually takes a battering. Not sure about the collapsing Ventian house, though, which risked being too much a set piece and reminded me of the boat-chomping propeller in the same city from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”. The Dr suspects, from the distinctive Gothic windows, that the building is also a real one, and one of John Ruskin’s own favourites.

The frenetic pace is full of nice details: spot Richard Branson going through security, or the allusions to “Don’t Look Now”. There are nice nods to the creation of the 007 we know: the origin of the gun barrel, and how he gets into tailored clothes and Aston Martins. Would have liked to see Cleese among the excited boffins who explain what to do with the poison.

I even think they manage the product placement nicely. Paul Cornell’s analysis shrewdly spots the hard sell to the Ford people: “He drives your car until he realises he’s better than that.” And we don’t actually see his Omega.

To my surprise (and delight) most of Fleming’s book makes it to the screen. I don’t think they’ve shown this much fidelity to the novels since “Thunderball” – the opening scene in “Living Daylights” excepted. It even works in Fleming’s own thing for married women, which makes relationships “simpler” (and the women easier to play).

Yet it also makes everything very contemporary, with international terrorism and the security at airports. We see Bond working all over the world. But note that none of the baddies are in anyway middle eastern. Which is also rather refreshing.

I especially liked seeing M having to answer questions about Bond amid the lavish old parliamentary buildings. It establishes boundaries, that Bond is still accountable. Likewise, I loved Bond getting splashed in the papers. He’s been in the news before – his death announced in “You Only Live Twice” and, almost, in “Tomorrow Never Dies”. But this is the first time his being newsworthy actually has genuine consequence.

M has never been more powerful, keeping her distance and keeping him in line. Even so, we see her house and a significant other (if not the offspring referred to in “TWINE”), the first suggestion of a life outside the office since Roger Moore’s house in “Live and Let Die”.

Yet for all the people and resources behind him, Bond is ever the loner – cross when he has to work with inferiors and barely able to accept any help. The appeal of Vesper when they meet on the train is that she gives him as good as she gets. He likes them to fight back. It’s a bravely pathological move for the movie to have him learn not to make any friends.

The 21st Bond film is his coming of age (I wonder if they did that on purpose), and this previously unheard-of character progression, from his first killings to his being “Bond, James Bond”, works extremely effectively. Rob – who doesn’t like that final, unbook scene – also says, “I don't want to be” this James Bond, but right at the end, yes I do.

Craig is as brilliant as I’d hoped when they cast him. Casino Royale is amazing, but I fear it can only be a one-off.

How far can they push all this in the next ones? Where else can they progress the character? He reaches the archetype at the end of this one, and after that it’s all as we knew him. Isn't it?

Bond admits himself that double-Os have a short life expectancy. Which would be a good excuse were Craig not to do many more outings.

Do, please, prove me wrong on this.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Bond watch: Pierce Brosnan

Off to see Casino Royale tonight, the air alive with spoilers. So there’s just time to finish the overview of all that has gone before.

The last time Bond had a major reboot, and he’d been off the screen for six years. It’s a majestic return, confident and plucky. Goldeneye looks gorgeous, with every shot carefully structured to maximise the glamour. A really beautiful picture to look at.

Bond returns, offering something new for the 90s. Yet it's almost entirely caught up in being about his past. Does 007 still cut the mustard now that the cold war is done?

It feels reassuringly like Bond's greatest hits: shiny satellite super-weapons like Diamonds Are Forever; all the guff about trust like in Licence to Kill; the electro-magnetic pulses threatened in For Your Eyes Only; the hidden dish in Cuba much like the volcano in You Only Live Twice. The base at the end is old-school style Ken Adam.

Yet it does feel very different from what we've seen before, with only Desmond Llewellyn handing over to the new fellow. The cast – mostly comprised of well-known British character actors – really helps raise the standard. And for all it’s a retread of a formula, it's written with depth and intelligence.

I liked how it deals with Britishness and Britain’s role in the world – what is the secret service for. No longer is Bond running to keep up with the Americans, he's prepared to discuss British weaknesses. There's something new about Bond admitting failures over the Cosacks. For the first time in ages there's a backdrop of political complexity, Bond dealing with the fall out from pragmatic decisions made by his masters before him.

Occasional slips are more notable because of this attention to detail. How does Bond, in a tank, overtake a train?

Like Rob Shearman's Dalek, the writing constantly confronts and challenges the weaknesses of James Bond. M, 006 and Natalya all have a pop at him, the best being M calling him a "sexist, mysoginist dinosaur".

I also like "Her Majesty's terrier," though I expect that more ably applies to Daniel Craig. Brosnan is excellent – deadly serious about the job, but twinkly when circumstance allows. He makes Bond fun again.

It's especially odd to see Bond in the heart of St Petersburg. I like all the stuff about his old enemies now being sort of friends. As we've seen before, Bond was always pro-Detente anyway, and it's a third party causing all the trouble. Would have liked to see him having some vodka and bread with Walter Gotell, though.

And then, at the end, Wade offers Bond and Natalya a lift back to a cosy place called Guantanamo. It's the final line of the film... and I wondered if they'd find Art Malik waiting for them...

Tomorrow Never Dies
Continuing on from Goldeneye, the Russians are our allies from the off. Bond helps sort out top brass's foolishness, letting us know he's still best. It takes a long time before we actually see him, too, so he makes a much stronger entrance.

The non-smoking Bond was noted at the time as a betrayal of what had gone before. But it’s moving with the times, and less strange a decade later. Bond was always a little into the future, and it’s better than him being such a tawdry old reactionary.

Actually, it’s a very confident opening, ballsy and exciting – all the more important considering it’s the first film since the death of Albert Broccoli. There are nice stylistic flourishes throughout, like the slow-motion sequence when the British ship is sinking. David Arnold’s score really helps – the first worthy successor to John Barry.

Again the cast includes a great wealth of talent, even in the minor roles. We get our first sighting of Colin Salmon, who Brosnan once mooted as his replacement. Still think they missed a trick there. Geoffrey Palmer is brilliant, and you can also spot Hugh Bonneville, Julian Rhind-Tutt and the bloke who played Mordred in “Battlefield”.

I wanted to say that it was Ricky Jervais who plays the fiendish Gupta (whose clothes my sister made!). He’s a beardie physicist, so we know he won’t make it to the end of the film. And in Stemper we’ve another blond villain with hobbies in torture and Nazism.

Again there’s a thirty party playing off the big powers: the threat of war here like in “Mind of Evil” (and Bond’s remote control car from “The Daemons”). The wheeze of a war being good for business and the media seems even more relevant today.

The film feels like it’s actually about something – real politics and the world that we live in. The gags about bugs in the software and M’s response to the death of Carver are also nicely judged.

For all Jonathan Pryce’s arched performance, Eliot Carver is a much more credible villain than usual. He doesn’t have piranha fish or walk with a limp, he’s just a weedy little bully who employs lots of burly henchmen. He’s believable as an excitable and spoilt control freak.

To further complicate the plot, Paris is a girl Bond really cares about – continuing the themes raised by Natalya in the last one about how the poor fella’s all on his own. That plays into Carver’s jealousy and insecurities (for all he’s spoken in front of his wife about getting Michelle Yeoh “behind a desk”). Again, these attachments between the characters help make the thing more complex and involving.

As a rule, it’s all nicely balanced between the real and the ridiculous. Dr Kaufman neatly bridges the funny and the sinister, and in his dispatch we see that ruthless steeliness that makes Bond so exciting.

Brosnan moves very gracefully, so can stroll from the printing press like he owns the place when he’s making his daring escape. His remote-control car that’s impervious to sledge-hammers still feels more real than the invisible Vanquish to come later… What’s more, Brosnan is really good at selling the special effects. I love his little cheer when his tyres re-inflate.

Michelle Yeoh is a great foil for him, just as able an agent as he is and quite happy to do her own thing. Bond doesn’t half choose him moments to make a move on her though – stop snogging and save her from drowning!

Again, there are nagging contrivances: that Gupta seen in the pre-title sequence is next working for Eliot Carver. Would Bond and Michelle Yeoh get the bends when they escape from the submarine? And, pedantically, Bond seems lost by her Mandarin (?) keyboard, though he’d studied “Oriental languages” in “You Only Live Twice”. (There’s a gag about his cunning linguini in this one.)

In the car chase, Bond’s bonnet-topped cable cutter is exactly the right height for the cable. And when he’s ditched the car, isn’t the car park he’s on the roof of still swarming with enemy agents?

Despite the car chase, and the fun spree on the motorbike later, another criticism is the lack of a memorable set piece – such a hallmark of a Bond film. But I don’t mind that. Better it’s all driving the plot, than the plot is strung round outlandish moments.

I also really like the closing theme, as sung by kd lang. For all it’s called “Surrender”, the Bassey-like belting out of the words “Tomorrow Never Dies” maybe suggest Arnold came up with two options for the opening. But cor, a Bond film that doesn’t end on a limp little fizzle. Hooray!

The World is Not Enough
Oh dear, oh dear. They so dropped the ball on this one.

The pre-titles sequence is utterly magnificent. It’s up and running quickly, Bond over his head in slick, modern Bilbao. Patrick Malahide makes a great cameo villain, and Bond resisting the obvious gags about the cigar girl’s figure makes the audience do the work for him.

It’s a great little sequence, Bond against four toughs, clinically working through them before making a daring escape. The swing down from the balcony is a nice mix of the funny and exciting that the franchise pulls off so well, and again Bronsnan’s demure cool lets him walk off like he owns the whole town. Bilbao in itself could have been the whole sequence, but the film then raises the stakes.

Bond has never been attacked at home before (the last time someone got into his London apartment was a pretty girl playing golf). It’s so iconic – and the sequence in the book of “The Man With The Golden Gun” where an enemy agent gets into the building was stolen for the original title sequence of the “Man from UNCLE”.

We then get the glorious chase down the Thames, full of nice flourishes and detail. With the villain still a mystery and Bond taking a tumble, it sets up the main film very nicely. It’s a much longer effort to the titles than usual – a full 13½ minutes. But it’s been worth it…

And then we’re in rainy Scotland for as long again, with people spoon-feeding the dull background and plot. The grey funeral merely reminded me of the spoof Casino Royale, and there’s a lot of sitting around in the MI6 castle waiting for Bond to get going.

Desmond Llewellyn’s final scene as Q is beautifully written and played (is “Never let them see you bleed” a knock at “Licence to Kill”?) but we’re half an hour into the movie before Bond is back to work. It utterly kills the pace and excitement set up before Garbage start singing. And despite its best efforts, the film never wins back that impetus.

This all seems to be an effort to create deeper and more complex character. We learn a lot about M in this one: that she was at Oxford and is also a mother. It hinges around her feelings for a dead friend, and how she is thus manipulated. This feels like the same trouble they had with Q in the 80s: trying to make his presence more important to the plot and allowing him more time on screen. It doesn’t work.

There’s also a lot of continuity baggage, with returns from Colin Salmon, Michael Kitchen and Robbie Coltrane. Only the latter actually has a part to play in the story, the others just prop up the background. It’s a waste – we don’t see a great deal of cleverness or guile in the corridors of MI6.

It’s also not a very pretty movie: drizzle and oil fields and dirty great industry. Bond has always managed a glamour before, but even the casino here is a bit tawdry. It’s not exactly the aspirational lifestyle that makes us run out to buy the placed product.

The industrial stuff hints at topicality, the plot toying with the fuel supply crisis. But this is all rather swept under the more soap-opera guff about how Sophie Marceau is really a wrong ‘un.

They really trowel it on with her. She can be nice and go to chapel (respectfully veiled, but still showing all her hair); she can be fearless about the pipeline; she can be cross about M’s involvement; and she can be wild and jump out of a helicopter. For heaven’s sake: spot the villainess.

At long last, someone attacks them as Bond and Sophie go for a ski. Actually, we could have skipped all the Scottish stuff, coming from the titles to her and Bond in the helicopter. “I don’t want you here,” she tells him.

“Tough,” replies Bond. “M thinks the people who killed your father will have a go at you. I’m not to leave your side.”

“Oh, really?” says Sophie, and promptly leaps from the helicopter. And Bond has no choice but to follow her. At least that would have got things moving.

When the baddies attack, they’re not very practical. The paragliding ski-machines seem incapable of catching their prey. Like the flying log-cutter later, it feels like too much of an effort to come up with something a bit different looking.

I like how Bond uses the coat John Cleese got lost in, to save them from the avalanche. And it’s nice to see Bond turning down a shag with Sophie (and not just ‘cos he’s getting too old). Except that a moment later they do shag, all erotically and done with ice. She’s making all the moves, so you can tell that she’s a wrong ‘un.

I guess it’s setting up that she’s just as ruthless about getting whatever she wants. It just makes Bond look a bit stupid.

He’s then off investigating like Bond does so well, and it’s good to see him using his resources and faking an ID. He then gets to meet Christmas Jones – so barely fleshed out as a character that she can only have been created for the film’s two woeful puns. In fact, I think the whole plot may have been conjured around that.

Reynard is too much of a one-note villain, a henchman not a villain in himself. That’s a remarkable waste of Robbie Carlyle. They struggle to make something of his unlikely injury, Sophie snogging him with ice just like she did with Bond. But for all the theatrics, we don’t feel any great love for Sophie. Which is what the whole thing rather relies on.

M’s kidnap makes M look stupid, and Bond falling for Sophie makes him just as much of a tool. So all this clever-clever character stuff had made everyone less impressive. Bond lingers over Sophie’s corpse when he finally kills her, when he should just march smartly away. Better to see him as a cold fish and wonder at the feelings within.

There’s then a last fight with Reynard and everything put right with the world. M returns to Scotland (for no very good reason – shouldn’t she be in London this time?), and she’s somehow lost Bond on the journey. They were in Istanbul together!

And then there’s the terrible gags. Cleese gets to finish on one about the Millennium bug – which just dates the film really horribly. There’s plenty I like – Coltrane, Goldie, even the X-ray specs. But it started so brilliantly well, and then fails to deliver the same standard. Such a shame.

Die Another Day
The opening surfing sequence is not especially wowing to look at (though I appreciate a sod to get filmed), and serves only to underline the paltriness of the later CGI.

The film in general has a gritty, dour feel – another in the long line of films promising a return to the bastard James Bond of the books. I assume the very treated look is due to overdone digital grading. Look at Toby Stephens as he launches the Icarus – the image grainy and bleached and too played with.

I’m guessing “Colonel Moon” is a riff off Kingsley Amis’s pseudonymous Bond novel, “Colonel Sun” (although that, with a kidnapped M, seemed more of an influence on the last one).

I like the mission going wrong, and Bond having to take on a whole army. The hovercraft are a nice new trick, and it’s a really good opening sequence. It could have finished with Bond swinging from his bell, but they suddenly do something very exciting. Bond is captured and goes off to years of being tortured. Suddenly what he gets up to has consequence.

It really feels new and daring. Which is a shame, because the film then consciously apes its past. The 20th film is written around set pieces from previous films in the series, and is littered with references and quotes. The franchise has been going so long, every film struggles to be wholly original. Is it wise to eat itself on purpose?

While it lasts, the Bond-on-the-run is electrifying. Brosnan retains Bond’s dignity when bearded and bruised, whether put in front of a firing squad or strolling into a classy hotel. The latter has the Bond theme playing because, clearly, he is still The Man. I like how Michael Madsen’s line, “You’d think he was some kind of hero,” plays against what we know of Bond and how Brosnan plays him.

M is much stronger behind the glass of his quarantined room. Even when she comes in to see him, she’s still a tough and unyielding boss. It makes her a much more powerful figure than she’s been thus far, and though her role in the film is much smaller than previously, she’s a much better character for it.

Like in “Licence to Kill” (an ominous phrase) Bond’s 00 status is rescinded. There’s something a bit… magical about how he escapes, and I’m not sure having a heart attack makes him very powerful. It’s all very dour and realistic, apart from when it isn’t.

Generally, in this first half of the movie things are kept real, and though it’s never stated explicitly, it’s all very conscious of 9/11. It dares to face North Korea as the enemy and to say things like, “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. So there’s a great deal of weight behind all that Bond’s up to.

So by the time we get to Cuba, he’s in need of light relief. It’s great seeing him wearing Hawaiian shirts and driving classic cars, and still being indelibly Bond. And after what feel like an age he goes birding. Jinx has a surprising line in single entendres, and the sex scenes between them are more explicit than they’ve ever been. We normally cut away.

After a fun action sequence through the hospital, Bond heads home to the sound of the Clash. I like Madsen offering to sort out the rogue agent if M cannot, and also the punky verve and energy as it all sets off in London. At this point, all bets are still off about where the movie’s going.

The sword fight is silly and again Madonna can only say what she sees, as if this is somehow witty. But the real change of pace is when Bond is called into the abandoned Tube station. Suddenly all is forgiven, and we’re back in silly gags about gadgets and a smug rollcall of dusty old props. Bond’s response to the world having changed – “Not for me!” – is meant to make him a hero, but it also makes him sound like a relic from the previous century.

I don’t mind the invisible car.

The sequence of baddies getting into MI6 is thrilling, especially the dead Salmon and Moneypenny. It’s a rubbish cheat only to be a dream, especially as it’s a set-up for a crap gag later. How far Samantha Bond has fallen since keeping Bond at arms length in “Goldeneye”. And how much more thrilling, Bond having regained his friends’ trust, to lose everything again so suddenly.

Then Bond is off to Iceland, and Rosamunde Pike is the clearly tagged wrong ‘un. She doesn’t want to shag him, so there must be something dodgy. I’m not sure why Toby Stephens allows Bond to roam so freely about his secret base, but I like the subtle clues as to who he really is.

But, like the last one, the strong and engaging start fails to deliver at the end. It’s almost like the production team chicken out of their new ideas, and have to play it safe. It’s all just knocking down the blatantly set-down pins.

Chasing about ensues, culminating in some terrible CGI that even Brosnan cannot sell. But we’re soon into a great car chase where Bond is matched for gadgets. I especially love the use of the ejector seat.

Having saved Jinx and clocked in at work, Bond is then out to finish off Toby Stephens. It’s all pretty predictable, and the CGI plane is really ropey. Is the escape from the back of the plane in a helicopter a riff on “Living Daylights”? In that, they escape in a jeep, which is a much more ballsy effort.

The latter half of this one, especially, feels like Bond films you’ve seen before just not done quite as well. Brosnan is always a class act, but the writing hasn’t done him justice, continually undercutting his professional cool with weakness and stupidity. He looks and sounds perfect, but he says the crassest things.

He’s last to be seen as Bond snuggled up to Jinx, labouring at dialogue which subtly conveys the impression she doesn’t want him to withdraw his fat dick from inside her vagina.

But actually – arf! – she’s talking about some diamonds she’s got in her belly button. Ho hum. He deserved better.

So what have I discovered in working my way through this lot?

I like all the 007s themselves, though Lazenby feels more like a Bond rip-off than a Bond of his very own. Can’t choose a favourite from the others; an unthinkable thought in my teens!

And my revised list of favourites are: Goldfinger; You Only Live Twice; The Man With The Golden Gun; Octopussy; The Living Daylights; Tomorrow Never Dies. And my least favourite is A View To A Kill. Not sure Goldfinger counts, because it’s so far above the rest of the series. I’d choose Octopussy over Golden Gun if only allowed one movie per actor.

And I’m giddily excited ‘bout tonight!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Plaster, casts

My old man on top of the domeI used to have an Old English Sheepdog called Florence (1984-96), who was scruffy and bouncy and liked to chase balloons. She was in no way like the city of the same name, from which myself, the Dr and my parents have just returned.

It’s a slap-in-the-chops of a beautiful city, even in drizzle and downpour. The first thing we did was clamber the more-than-400 steps to the top of Brunelleschi’s Duomo – a knackering mountaineer round and over and up through the workings, where it’s best not to dwell on the 15th-century-ness of the wonky zigzag brickwork.

Younger folk from other lands pushed past us back and forth up the haphazard corridor. I thought fondly of their being whipped and eaten by the monsters on the dome’s underside. Perhaps I was just feeling hungry.

The Dr on top of the domeThen, pop we were out into the tiny walkway on the roof of the world, looking out on to rooftops of the early Renaissance. Such a splendid vista that the usual vertigo forgot to kick in. The crappy o’erhanging sky leant it Turneresque grandeur, and we ahhed and cooed and took photos.

After late lunch and a bit of a wander, we continued to explore. The Baptistery reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome, and the Museo dell’ opera del Duomo contained all sorts of pretty things mostly brought in from the rain. Michelangelo’s Florentine Pieta is very different from his Rome one – this Jesus is bigger than those around him.

What’s more, it’s unfinished (because he broke it), so lets you see how the master worked. The trick to sculpting seems to be to start with a crude outline then gradually work in the detail.

Like with CGI, I told the Dr. She eyed me with one of those looks.

The next few days we criss-crossed the city, and even managed a trip out to Fiesole, where we clambered round the Roman theatre and I fell fast asleep on the bus. It occurred to me on the waterfront how much Florence now might resemble 1599 London, as given in the book I was reading.

Almost everywhere was acknowledging 40 years since a terrible flood, which did untold and awful damage to so many pretty old things. Black and white blow-ups of photograph showed church floors and cloisters and delicate bits of art covered all over in mud. Crude English captions brokenly explained that the real battering came not from the water, but from the diesel and engine oils mixed in with it, from the tens of thousands of cars caught up in the deluge.

Despite everything we’d been told, there was no queue into the Uffizi, and we marvelled at the Botticellis which the Dr so adores. There was a general pre-Raphaelite thing going on in the works of art she clung to. I was more struck by why "Florentine" is sometimes a synonym for "Can’t catch" – there’s willies every whichway you look.

What would be the collective noun for willies? "Wilkin" suggests the Dr. I’m going to vote for "Thatch".

There’s something of a giveaway in the works of Michelangelo. Even his unfinished men have perfectly polished torsos, while the women in the Medici Chapel look like men with blocky lumps… For such a keen observer of the physical form, he just didn’t have an eye for the ladies.

Of far more excitement to me was the Masaccio frescoes in the Santa Maria Novella and the Santa Maria del Carmine. 100 years before Michelangelo and da Vinci, Masaccio was painting some really cool things.

In his Trinity, he's playing with new-fangled linear perspective and making things freakishly stand-out - the 1427-28 equivalent of movies in lurid 3D. Only being used to pretty a church.

In a time of stylised, two-dimensional Byzantine stylings (which are all very nice in their way), he was basing his work on observation, using natural colours and a realistic feel. The characters in his pictures are real people, with emotional complexity writ large in their faces. I was especially taken with the photographic feel of some of the peripheral guest cast.

It’s a century ahead of the times to have individuals so real and distinctive. In the Branacci Chapel, St Peter is recognisable in a whole series of frescoes – as much to do with a recognisable head even in different poses, as because he's always wears the same colours.

"The rendering of the tribute money" also splits time up to create a narrative flow: in the centre, Jesus points Peter off to the left, where he’ll find a fish full of money, and where Peter already fishes. On the right, we see Peter handing over the miraculous cash to some bloke who is strapped for his taxes.

Masaccio's Rendering of the Tribute Money

The only way to understand the picture is to read the story, by recognising the characters and their place in time. Long before I’d read Scott McCloud, I wrote an A-level essay on this early comic-strip form, based on how it met the strictures of “How to Draw Comics the ‘Marvel’ Way”.

I told the Dr. She eyed me with one of those looks.

On our last day, we managed the English Cemetery, where the Dr found a like-mind to discuss sneaky plans with.

What passes for engineering standards on the ContinentWe then took a train to Pisa, which crawled maggot-like from stop to stop so that we thought we’d miss our flight. Had just enough time to cab it to the wonky tower made famous in Superman III, stuff some Calzone and ignore the hawkers of watches, and then cab it back across the river to the airport.

Back home, via a just-missed train in East Croydon - those last six words a very poem of despair - to the cat and post and a quick-thinking use of Tsan. And the embrace of work like we'd never been parted.

Friday, November 17, 2006

St Hugh of Lincoln

Greetings from sunny, if cool, Florence. A full report on our exciting stair-climbing actvities will follow another day. In the meantime, here is something quite interesting I learnt while on the plane.

Today - 17 November - is the anniversary of the death of Queen Mary in 1558, and so the first day of the queenery of Elizabeth I. A decade later, the 17th November was being celebrated as "Accession Day" across the country.
"Elizabth's Accession Day was probably the first political holiday in modern Europe and initiated the string of nationalist holidays that are now a staple of the Anglo-American calendar. While holidays like Guy Fawkes' Day or Independence Day seem perfectly normal today, the notion of a non-religious holiday, or even of a holy day celebrating a living figure, simply unimagineable before this in Europe."

James Shapiro, 1599: A year in the life of William Shakespeare, p. 187.

Shapiro then goes on to detail the various objections and protests to this.

My maths is a bit wobbly, but I think we're two years off the 450th anniversary of this auspicious date. So I shall see you all back here on this day, 2008, to raise a glass to the ginger virgin and the ushering in of godless revelry.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Reach for the sky

Splendid curry with fine folk last night. Discussed Lesvos and Snowdonia, and topics in between.

Dawdled tipsily home and, as we agreed glasses of water and plans for today, the cat clambered into his litter box and pooed out quite a belter. Should have known it was brewing: he only waits for us to come home when he’s sitting on an elephant. That way we can clear it up quickly, and he’s not left to skulk round the stinkied-out house.

While the poop was dealt with by the eye-watering wife, I helped expunge the fug by opening the skylight. As regular readers will know, our kitchen is in the attic and keeps its windows in the ceiling.

Cut to:

This morning, I was awoke from tasty slumber by something of a panic: the Dr could not locate the cat. He wasn’t hiding behind curtains or on top of the fridge. He wasn’t lurking among the old Dr Who comics that clutter the legroom under my desk. Nor was he in the living room where O. has been sleeping – O. had shut the door to prevent more cat-sitting-on-face hilarity.

The culprit soon became clear: the open skylight window. It’s quite a leap from the worktop to the roof, but not impossible for a cat.

Yet we speak in this case of a cat who falls off the tabletop for no very good reason, who can miss the chair he’s jumping on to, who can lose his catnip mice and socks even as he’s playing with them, and who fell out of the living room window earlier this year.

We speak of a cat that is famously dim and an almost doggish klutz.

I climbed on a chair to poke my head out the skylight but could see nothing but the steep-inclined tiles and a clear if wintry sky.

Leaving the wife to call the cat’s name and shake a tin of treaty biscuits, I went to look out other windows for a hairy black splat in the neighbouring gardens. This work was interrupted by a shriek from upstairs.

The cat was poking his nose nonchalantly through the skylight, wondering as to all the fuss. I leapt on the chair and grabbed his front paws, and after he realised that fighting back meant he lost his grip on the tiles underneath him, he conceded to be hauled back inside.

Little sod seems rather pleased with his adventure. We suspect he may have gone up there for the sake of chasing birds. But, as I explained to him in stern parental fashion, “You are not the same as Alfie.”

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Men in tights

The Dr says I should let people know of Boots and Bonnets.

It details the excitingness of dour and sulky men in tight trousers. Men who, time and again, turn out not to be quite as dour and sulky as they seem.

But still wear the tight trousers.

Monday, November 13, 2006

My life at your command

I am back from sunny Stockton and a weekend of not much sleep. Saw some splendid people, made some nice new friends, and got to introduce Toby Hadoke to an appreciative Brigadier.

The Big Finish panel was nobly handled by Charlie Ross, and the exciting things we spoke of there will be announced to the nation soon. But this post's heading might well be a clue.

Back home to the spin-drying and a happy-to-see-me cat, and work and O. await. Currently listening to the final edit of "The Oracle of Delphi" and wondering why this blog has disappeared.

Is this thing on? Hello?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Halfway house of death

The Cybermen in Dr Who are a bit of a grisly business. They’re a mash-up of old, worn-out bodies with shiny new kit attached. They’ve replaced their squishy bits – guts and eyes and emotions – with metal and plastic.

They’re not scary because they’re cold, callous robots who don’t know how to argue. They’re scary because they used to be people like you and me. Somewhere in their heads they still know that, and yet they still going round being baddies.

Often, we see people at a half-way stage in the cyberising process, battling to save the people they are from being eaten up by the machine. The spangly new series had Dr Who beat the Cybermen by reminding them of what they’d lost – a trick he’d used before getting Toberman and Lytton back on to his side.

The Age of Steel’s poor Sally Cyberman – worrying about her wedding and why she’s so cold – was in part inspired by “Spare Parts”, a horrific pair of CDs by m’colleague Marc Platt about a cyberised girl and her family.

Normally, even the converted women are made into Cybermen. They lose gender distinctions at the same time as their appreciation of sunsets and well-cooked meals. Though in Sunday’s Hoot Crowd we got to see a woman mid-enmanning, fetchingly decked out in Cyber-bra and thong.

The Cybermen are scary because they fall between two stools; because they’re not neat and tidy there’s room for stories to explore. It also explains why they can do illogical things – saying “Excellent!” and wearing jeans.

Unfortunately, I find I have also fallen between two Cyber-stools.

All set to laser-blast Amazon for my not-yet-in-my-hands DVDs, I discover the address I’ve given them is a bit of a mash-up, too – half the old, worn-out place I was living in this time last year, and half the new and spangly flat on which Daleks help pay the mortgage.

Gah. And I've already head my head examined this week. Think it's probably time for an upgrade.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

That was Zing-Zang

The response of the young folk to yesterday's post is that this blog could be a lot blinger. Imagine! It doesn't flash and bleep or try to gouge out your eyes... And it's pretty unbook to leaves words unabbreviated.

Ho hum.

A rather lovely evening in the pub last night to celebrate G.'s latest birthday. Got to talk to J. for the first time in ages, and we were recognised for our famousness by a nice lady called Jenny.

This morning, the postperson brought many fine treats. Dr Who's Magazine features the second installment of Jonny Morris's comic strip, "Interstella Overdrive". It neatly solves the astonishing cliffhanger, and is jammed full of deft tricks and ideas. Cor, I wish I'd written that.

I did write "Summer of Love", which also arrived this morning and which I've got on as I type. "Actually, that is quite something," says Benny - about something that Joe Lidster's packing.

Benny and I [but not Joe, as I originally wrut] will be at this weekend's Dimensions. I suddenly afear that I'll spend the whole time being asked about time-travelling clap.

Speaking of writing, I've also seen off a few things today. "Old Friends" has gone to the printers today, a 65-page something else has finally been completed, and I've got a pitch to work on for John S. Drew's "Dome".

And on Monday, having had my ears both vacuumed, Codename Moose and I discussed a great many possible projects.

So busy. I'm not doing NaNoWriMo, though the Dr is. She is part of a gang lead by Falldog's Red Five, and wants to hog the computer tonight for more period excitement. Best finish off here soon.

Postie hasn't brought an Invasion yet, so I shall settle for Philip MacDonald...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

If she doesn't scare you

The Dr has asked me to post something special, as she's showing my blog off today. Hello. Has she talked about walking the cat?

Blogs are a quick, easy and free - FREE! - way of telling the whole world things that matter. Friends and devoted acolytes can follow my adventures, and I seem to have acquired regular readers in America, Finland and Japan. Hello to you, too. Chilly, isn't it?

Because anyone can read the contents of bloggings, you should be a bit careful about what you write. I've talked before about how weird it is when people actually read this stuff.

It's not a private conversation, it's here for all to see. So don't talk behind people's backs and don't tell tales. The people you're talking about will find out eventually. No, they really will.

It happens so much there's even a word for people who get sacked because of what they've blogged. "BE YE NOT SO STUPID," advises the first person to be dooced.

With that in mind, I call the Dr "Dr" on here. This helps protect her identity (and odd habits) from those that don't know her. And she'd hit me were a Google for her real name to bring up all my strange ramblings.

The Dr, artist's impressionJust imagine! Someone would be looking up the things she's said or written, and instead they'd find me going on about, oh I don't know, something like how she used to get teased for looking just like Cruella De Vil.

You see? By calling her "Dr" she has no reason to hit me.

And neither does her mum, who used to be a teacher and whose nickname was "Cruella De Vil", too.