Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Space Odyssey, by Michael Benson

A couple of years ago, I praised a jaw-dropping exhibition of images of the Solar System which were on temporary display at the Natural History Museum. I said Otherworlds was, “brilliantly curated by Michael Benson,” so I eagerly anticipated his new book on the making of the film 2001 to mark its  50th anniversary.

Space Odyssey is excellent, detailing the minutiae of each stage in the creative process, from director Stanley Kubrick first making contact with writer Arthur C Clarke to the film’s premiere four years later, its immediate aftermath and the fates of these two men. It is fascinating, insightful and profound – just like the film.

It’s a thrill to follow, step by step, the development of iconic moments – who suggested what and when, and how Kubrick marshalled, encouraged and ran ragged the team around him. Most surprising is how late some of the decisions were made – even deep into cutting, the film almost had a narration and a specially composed score (rather than using pre-existing tracks). On p. 394, we’re told Kubrick even considered getting the Beatles to provide the music. Indeed, the film we know now and I have on Blu-ray is a cut-down, improved version of the one that premiered in New York in April 1968 to such a negative response – effectively, Kubrick was still revising the film after it was finished.

Several of the many, many people Benson interviewed refer to Kubrick as a genius, but the overall impression is of a brilliant, difficult and rather cowardly man. When a real leopard was filmed for the Dawn of Man sequence, Kubrick was the only member of the cast and crew to be inside a protective cage. Worse, we watch in horror as Kubrick insists that stunt performer Bill Weston do longer and longer takes in a spacesuit that Kubrick has also insisted have no holes to prevent the build up of CO2. Weston is rendered unconscious, as has been only too inevitable, and though he recovers Kubrick then avoids him.

There are other things: that Clarke was treated unfairly in contract negotiations, which led to him not getting royalties on the film, and suffered delays in getting the book version approved that didn’t help the delicate state of his finances; the special effects team done out of an Academy Award by Kubrick taking credit for their work.  And yet it’s difficult not to admire this difficult, selfish man for his dedication. His approach, his care, his achievement are remarkable.

I found a lot of it funny, such as when (p.91) Kubrick, unsure how to realise the apes in the Dawn of Man sequence, wrote to noted actor Robert Shaw about playing play the lead, unspeaking ape – because he felt Shaw already had simian features. No response is recorded.

Likewise, in the papers drawn up to greenlight the movie, there’s a list of contingency directors. David Lean seems an obvious choice (he hadn’t directed science-fiction before, but then neither had Kubrick), but others are more surprising:
“Try to imagine 2001 – A Space Odyssey directed by [Billy] Wilder, the man who made Some Like it Hot.”
Michael Benson, Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C Clarke and the Making of a Masterpiece (2018), p. 90.
The same page also picks out a detail in the contract referring to jurisdictions – the rights to the movie covering not just different countries but extending into space.
“The boilerplate had coincided with the destination.”
Ibid.
Benson is an expert guide, though I kept wanting to add prepositions to his wry, dry US journalese. He also feels the need to explain the abbreviation “NB” (p. 66) and that “George the second” was “the eighteenth-century monarch” (p. 224). But then that’s me assuming these things are readily understood, and Benson’s perspective as an outsider gives him a telling insight into the British film industry of the time:
“The British class system was as quietly rigid and unquestioningly enforced at Borehamwood as elsewhere. Offspring of the lower classes were expected to aspire to union cards from the trades; they might become sparks (electricians), chippies (carpenters), plasterers, grips, drivers, and the like. Upper-class kids, on the other hand, could jostle for positions in management and leading creative positions: assistant directors, camera assistants, producers in training.”
Ibid., p. 225.
This is exemplified in the role of posh boy Andrew Birkin – brother of Jane – who starts out as the production’s tea boy and is soon in charge second-unit shooting in Scotland for the Star Gate sequence, taking command of the camera from operator Jack Atcheler, who found the low-flying aerial photography too perilous. (And not without reason; Birkin tells Benson that their helicopter pilot was killed on his next movie (p. 245).)

There are odd omissions, too: for all Benson details the relationship between Kubrick and young effects pioneer Douglas Trumbull, there’s no mention of Silent Running (1972), mentioned recently by critic Mark Kermode in his series Secrets of Cinema:
“Trumbull said that he made the unashamedly sentimental Silent Running as a response to the inhuman sterility of 2001 – a film in which the most sympathetic character is a homicidal computer. In Silent Running, Trumbull set his hero [Freeman] alone in space with only three worker drones for company. The drones are robots who, during the course of the movie, come to exhibit strangely human characteristics, or perhaps to reflect the human characteristics which Freeman projects on to them.”
Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema (BBC Four, 2018) 1.4: Science Fiction
And although Benson talks about the influence of 2001 on subsequent science-fiction films, there’s little on the wider cultural impact. I was struck by a small comment when referring to the success of Clarke’s novel of the film.
“His other work benefitted as well, with three new printings of Childhood’s End in 1969 alone.”
Benson, p. 435.
It’s in this context that Childhood’s End influenced David Bowie’s 1971 song “Oh! You Pretty Things”, which in turn part-inspired the TV series The Tomorrow People. There’s no mention, either, of the conspiracy theory spun out of the technical excellence of 2001’s visual effects: that Kubrick then helped to fake the Moon landings.

One thing Benson does mention is of great interest to something I’m writing at the moment. Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975) won an Academy Award for its cinematography, which included interior scenes,
“illuminated almost entirely by candlelight. The result was the first accurate representation of what eighteenth century interiors looked like before the advent of electricity, giving the film the remarkable aspect of a period oil painting come to life.”
Ibid., p. 438.
This, says Benson, was achieved through the use of fast Leiss lenses with extremely wide apertures, developed for the Apollo programme to photograph the far side of the Moon.

It’s this sort of connection that makes the book such an absorbing, astonishing read. But I think the detail that most lingers is a quotation from Clarke’s 1960 essay, “Rocket to the Renaissance”, in which he draws a parallel between space travel and something from history – not the Wild West or even Homer’s Odyssey, but life emerging out of the oceans.
“We seldom stop to think we’re still creatures of the sea, able to leave it only because from birth to death we wear the water-filled space suits of our skins.”
Ibid, p. 51.
See also: Me on the death and legacy of Arthur C Clarke

Doctor Who post script
I’m intrigued by the one reference in the book to Doctor Who. Benson tells us that in the autumn of 1965, in the weeks leading up to the start of filming on 30 December, the spacesuit backpacks, front manoeuvring controllers, button panels for the arms and the space helmets were produced either inhouse at the studios in Borehamwood,
“or by AGM, the London company also busy manufacturing ‘Daleks’: the cylindrical alien cyborgs seen in Doctor Who, the cult BBC-TV series.”
Ibid., p. 123.
Pre-production and the start of filming on 2001 overlapped with the recording of the 12-part The Daleks’ Master Plan on television. We know the team on 2001 contacted director Douglas Camfield a few days after the broadcast of episode 5, Counter Plot, on 11 December 1965 to find out how he’d achieved the space-travelling and molecular dissemination effects.

Yet I’d never heard of AGM, so checked with Dalek expert Gav Rymill. “Autumn of ‘65 would have been just before the enormous batch of props made for Daleks Invasion Earth 2150 AD,” says Gav. The Dalek props – for the TV series and the two films – were supplied by Shawcraft, but it’s possible AGM supplied some of the sets or other props used in both TV and films. We shall do more digging...

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Dickens and the dinosaurs

The online new issue of medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry (vol 5, iss 8, August 2018) features "Dickens and the dinosaurs", a review of  the exhibition Charles Dickens: Man of Science, running at the Dickens Museum in London until 11 November.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Doctor Who Figurine Collection

I've been working for a while on the partwork Doctor Who Figurine Collection, my job to write 1,200 words on the costumes of particular characters from the whole history of Doctor Who, as assigned to me by editor Neil Corry.

It's fun and fiddly, involving lots of research and the tracking down of people to interview, as always in the hope of unearthing new detail or insight. For my own record, here are the issues I've done. (I'll try and keep this list updated as we go...)

100 - The Master
Specifically, the significance of the Nehru suit worn by actor Roger Delgado for the Master's first appearance in the opening scenes of Terror of the Autons (1971).

113 - Robot SantasThe modified design from The Runaway Bride (2006), rather than the originals from The Christmas Invasion (2005).

114 - Ice Queen IraxxaFrom The Empress of Mars (2017), including interview with writer Mark Gatiss. I also spoke to Gary Russell and Lee Sullivan about the design of the female Ice Warrior, Shssur Luass, seen in the Doctor Who comic strip published in Radio Times in 1996.

115 - Auton
In blue overalls, from Spearhead in Space (1970).

117 - Omega
From Arc of Infinity (1983); I try to uncover why he looks nothing like he did in his previous story, The Three Doctors (1972-3).

118 - Spacesuit Zombie
From Oxygen (2017), including interview with actor Tim Dane Reid.

119 - Emojibot
From Smile (2017), including interview with writer Frank Cottrell-Boyce and SFX producer Kate Walshe.

120 - The First Doctor
From The Doctor Falls and Twice Upon a Time (2017), including interview with costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

121 - Truth MonkFrom Extremis, The Pyramid at the End of the World and The Lie of the Land (2017), including interviews with actor Tim Dane Reid, SFX producer Kate Walshe and costume designer Hayley Nebauer.

122 - Eliza
From Knock Knock (2017), including interview with sculptor Gary Pollard and SFX producer Kate Walshe.

125 - Silurian
From Warriors of the Deep (1984), including excerpts from correspondence from writer Johnny Byrne to fan Sarah Groenewegen in 1983.

126 - The Second Doctor
Specifically, the costume from his first story, The Power of the Daleks (1966).

127 - Winder
From The Beast Below (2010), examining an earlier version of the script.

132 - The Fourth Doctor
Specifically, June Hudson's redesign of the costume for The Leisure Hive (1980). I spoke to Hudson, and also to Ron Davies from Angel's Costumiers, who cut the coat.

Companion set 1 - Amy Pond and The Eleventh Doctor
Covering their costumes between The Eleventh Hour (2010) and The Angels Take Manhattan (2012).

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Journey up the Nile, the Egyptian Diary of Marianne Brocklehurst

Last week, I visited the West Park Museum in Macclesfield as research for my forthcoming Radio 3 documentary, “Victorian Queens of Ancient Egypt”, to be broadcast early next year.

The museum was the idea of Marianne Brocklehurst (1832-98), the well-off daughter of silk manufacturer, banker and Liberal MP John Brocklehurst (1788-1870), and I’m investigating Marianne’s own politics and why she, and the industrial north more generally, might have felt an affinity for the Pharaohs.

Marianne apparently made five trips to Egypt, and the museum has many of the artefacts she acquired along with her drawings and paintings. In 2017, the museum published “Journey Up the Nile”, a transcript of Marianne’s diary from her first trip. It’s a nice, hardback edition on glossy paper, including many illustrations and photographs, and an introduction by honorary curator Alan Hayward that helps set the scene. (The only thing lacking is a map, so I referred to the one in Alan’s 2013 pamphlet, “The Story of the Collection – How West Park Museum Got Its Ancient Egyptian Objects.”)

The diary begins on 11 November 1873, as Marianne sets off from Macclesfield with her travelling companion Mary Booth (1830-1912), Marianne’s young nephew Alfred and manservant George Lewis. The entries are mostly short, single paragraphs, the detail in the accompanying sketches. But there’s a sense of fun and adventure, Marianne seeming to relish the small hardships.

They pass through France and Italy, losing some of Alfred’s luggage along the way, recovering it, then losing track of time – presumably because of so much travelling by night - to arrive at Brindisi a day early for their boat across the Mediterranean. There are comic sketches of people falling over themselves during the very rough crossing, which leads to their boat ending up a hundred miles off course.

Although they reach Alexandria on 28 November, it’s another day before they’re cleared to land – 18 days after setting off from home. Stuck on board for that last evening, Marianne and Mary – the MBs, as they were known – meet other tourists, including novelist Amelia Edwards (1831-92), who will follow much of their course down and up the Nile on another, grander boat.

Edwards would later establish the Egyptian Exploration Fund (now Society) and provide a legacy for the first professorship of Egyptian Archaeology – awarded to Flinders Petrie – so she’s a significant figure in the discipline. This is from before all that, but she’s hardly a young girl. She’s a well-established professional writer, and in her early 40s – as are the two MBs.

In 2016, Historic England Grade II listed the grave Edwards shares with her long-term companion Ellen Drew Brayshaw, noting its importance in LGBT history. The MBs were also long-term companions who would be buried together. What can we read into that?

“We should not take a modern attitude to two women living together,” says Alan Hayward in his 2013 pamphlet, “for in those days, when a woman’s role was to raise a family and run the home, it was the only way for independently minded wealthy women to ‘do their own thing’.”

I scoured the diary looking for anything that might hint at something more. At no point does she tell us what their relationship is – but then she also doesn’t spell out her relationship to Alfred (her nephew) or George (her servant). The assumption is that her readers will know, because this diary was likely passed between friends and not intended for publication.

She is candid about certain things, describing at some length and with much excitement how she and Mary smuggled a mummy case out of the country, bribing officials along the way, and noting the very serious punishments those involved risked by helping her. Yet she is coy about exactly how much she paid – something less than a £100 but a “good round number in sovereigns” (p. 91).

So we’re left to interpret what is left unsaid. Can we read anything into the moment that Mary “smokes a pipe over the oil can” (p. 36) with the sailors, which seems rather unladylike, or the delight the MBs take in “paying our baksheesh like a man” (p. 69)?

Other details are more sure. The four-month trek down and up the Nile is a well-established journey, the river busy with other tourists, some of them friendly and respectable, others – such as Cooks’ excursionists and some American Christians – behaving badly, carving their names in the monuments and leaving their rubbish behind them. Some things have not changed in a century and a half - just like the MBs, the Dr and I struggled to find the carving of Cleopatra on the wall of the temple at Dandara.

In other ways it's another world. There's the pith helmets and formal wear of the tourists in the pictures. There’s the risk of crocodiles, and thieves, and Marianne’s compassionate response when a trusted sailor turns out to have stolen from them.
“Let us not be hard on his memory considering that, like the rest of the sailors, his pay was only thirty shillings a month for three or four months at the most and then nothing to do or to get until the next season began.” (pp. 86-7)
There is a great deal more, but I won’t share all my notes here as they’re for the documentary...

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The World of Doctor Who

In shops now, The World of Doctor Who is the latest - and 50th - special edition of Doctor Who Magazine, and examines the past, present and future of fandom.

I've written three features:

SHOW YOUR APPRECIATION
'Calling all Doctor Who fans...' The Doctor Who Appreciation Society was launched in 1976. Paul Winter, the current Co-ordinator, explains how its role has changed over the years.

THE FAN SHOWS
From humble beginnings in the early 70s, fan productions have grown increasingly sophisticated, nurturing careers and featuring numerous stars from television Doctor Who.
(I spoke to animator Lucy Crewe from Creative Cat FX, director Kevin Jon Davies, Den Valdron who wrote The Great Unauthorized Doctor Stories, producer Keith Barnfather, puppeteer Alisa Stern and the team behind Devious - Ashley Nealfuller, David Clarke, Stephen Cranford and Mark Jones.)

CONVENTIONAL WISDOM
What began in a church in London in 1977 has now become a crucial part of many fans' social calendars. This is the essential guide to Doctor Who conventions.
(I spoke to Dexter O'Neill at Fantom, Oni Hartstein of (Re)Generation Who, and fans Prakash Bakrani, Jennifer and Ed Comstock, Yashoda Sampath, Jenny Shirt and Andrea @TARDISParrot.) 

Saturday, August 04, 2018

The Princess Diarist, by Carrie Fisher

The friend I borrowed this from got it for Christmas in 2016, and was 33 pages in when news arrived that Carrie Fisher had died. My friend had not been able to read any further.

Even while Fishe was alive, this would have been an uncomfortable read. It's based on diaries she kept in 1976 and subsequently forgot about, detailing her thoughts while filming the first Star Wars film in London, and having an affair with her married co-star, Harrison Ford. The "diaries" - they're more a series of thoughts and poems - make up the middle third of the book.

The first third sets the scene, detailing how she got to be in Star Wars, her background and expernece of show business, and her lack of self-esteem, and then how the affair began. She's withering, witty and honest, with a brilliant, sometimes filthy turn of phrase (describing Ford at one point as "the snake in my grass"). The effect is that she's addressing us, the reader directly, and challenging us to question her actions and motives.
"But though I do admittedly lay bear far more than the average bear, before disclosing anything that is possibly someone else's secret to tell, I make it a practice to first let that person know about my intention. (Aren't I ethical? I thought you'd think so.)"
Carrie Fisher, The Princess Diariest, p. 51.
That would seem to mean she consulted Ford prior to publication, though it's never stated as such and he's not mentioned in her acknowledgements.

The account of how she and Ford got together is funny, revealing much about them both, and she picks out details in retrospect that better explain how things happened. I'd read some of this before in a newspaper, and it's heartfelt, sweet and desperately sad, grief for a life and love long since past.

The last third is more about the love affair that followed the release of Star Wars, the affect her character had on the public. In a long chapter, she details the experience of being a guest at Comic Con, the doubts she has about this kind of "lap-dancing" for cash.
"It's certainly a higher form of prostitution: the exchange of a signature for money, as opposed to a dance or a grind. Instead of stripping off clothes, the celebrity removes the distance created by film or stage. Both traffic in intimacy."
Ibid., p. 211.
"I need you to know I'm not cynical about fans ... I'm moved by them," she assures us (p. 223), "For the most part they're kind and courteous" (p. 224). She's shrewd, too, about the appeal of Princess Leia, and why Star Wars can mean so much to people, which they want to share with her. Even so, it's daunting, exhausting, just to read about having so much significance projected on to you - not you, someone who looks like you used to.
"I wish I'd understood the kind of contract I signed by wearing something like that [metal bikini], insinuating I would and will always remain somewhere in the erotic ballpark appearance-wise, enabling fans to remain connected to their younger, yearning selves - longing to be with me without having to realize that we're both long past all of this in any urgent sense, and accepting it as a memory rather than an ongoing reality."
Ibid., pp. 228.
That's really struck me: the desperate futility of holding on to past love. The sadness of the book, and of the loss of Carrie Fisher, is a grieving for ourselves.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Illuminae, by Amie Kaufmann & Jay Kristoff

This brilliant novel had me hooked from its first pages - in which a school is attacked by a huge spaceship. In the heart of the maelstrom are Katy and Ezra, a couple of teenagers who just broke up. We follow their desperate efforts to survive...

From its thrilling opening, Illuminae builds and builds, with twist after shocking twist. The teenagers are smart and funny and brave, so we're totally with them every step, and share every agony they go through. And there's a lot of that - more than once I muttered, "No!" as I was reading. It's hard not to say more without spoiling the delights.

As well as the exceptional plotting and characterisation, it's an epistolary novel, made up from a stash of emails, analysis of CCTV and other recordings. That's done really well and sustained throughout - no mean achievement in itself - which adds to the intimacy and realism as we look over Katy and Ezra's shoulders.

There are two further books in the same series - Gemina and Obsidio - and the authors are working on a new series, beginning with Aurora Rising next year. They are all added to the reading pile. Illuminae is hugely recommended.