Friday, July 24, 2020

Caligari in the Lancet Psychiatry

Lancet Psychiatry, August 2020I've written about the 100 year-old movie Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari in the August 2020 issue of the Lancet Psychiatry. You need to pay to read the whole thing, but here's a preview:
Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) is now a century old. Even if you've never seen it, much will be hauntingly familiar. The plot is simple enough: wild-eyed showman Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss) has an unsettling stage act involving willowy Cesare (Conrad Veidt), who we're told has been asleep for almost all of his 23 years. Krauss has complete power over this somnambulist, waking him for brief intervals to foretell the future. One eager member of the audience is horrified to be told he'll die that very night—and then does. We soon learn that Caligari sends Cesare out at night to commit murder but, in a shock twist, “Caligari” is revealed to be the director of the nearby asylum. Then, in another shock twist, all of this turns out to be the gothic fantasy of another of the patients (Friedrich FehĂ©r). The staff and other patients at the asylum have all been given roles in his delusion, and the exaggerated, Expressionist production design of the film is the world as seen by, in the language of the time, “a madman”.

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tintin, by Herge

The Adventures of Tintin boxset
I’m struggling a bit with prose for grown-ups, so over the last month worked my way through The Adventures of Tintin, an eight-volume box-set of the boy reporter’s collected scrapes, including the early, rough Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and the unfinished Tintin and the Alph-Art but not including the especially racist and colonialist Tintin in the Congo from which even Herge distanced himself. (The book is available to buy separately.)

My parents still have a bunch of Tintin books that I shared with my brothers. In my head they were always more my younger brother’s but I’m surprised now to discover how few of them I’d read. Running gags, such as the telephone being put through to the butcher, or insurance salesman Jolyon Wagg outstaying his welcome, seemed completely new.

I was also surprised by how funny so much of it is, having thought of Tintin as the po-faced cousin of Asterix, to whom I was devoted. But there’s loads of often very funny slapstick here, whole sequences of panels passing without a word. I wonder what it owes to the comedy of silent film.

The pace is also striking. Written as a newspaper strip but reformatted for book versions, each story licks along at great speed, full of incident and twists. There are plenty of cliffhangers - though, as with so many adventure serials, many of them are undone by outrageous good fortune or sleight of hand on the part of the author. Still, it’s exciting and fun.

And it looks beautiful. Herge's clean line style with no shading and flat colours means that strips that are nearly 100 years old reproduce nicely, and look fantastic on shiny, good quality paper. The style suggests cartoon-faced people in an otherwise convincingly realised world - it's both daft comic strip and gritty realism at the same time. 

But also striking is the racist stuff. Even without Tintin in the Congo, there are plenty of crude racial and cultural stereotypes, perhaps the most jaw-dropping in The Broken Ear when Tintin blacks up. 

Tintin blacks up in The Broken Ear

Having nominally bought the collection for my nine year-old son, I started to have second thoughts - and  I’m not the only one. On 10 June, just as I was reading this, Amol Rajan was on BBC News to talk about Gone With the Wind being removed from Netflix - just a day after he’d been on to talk about the more recent comedy Little Britain coming down from iPlayer.
“That is fraught with difficulty. Where does it stop? I'm reading Tintin with my son at the moment and an exhibition of tolerance it certainly is not. It reads like one long parade of racial cliches.” (Tweet by Amol Rajan, 10 June 2020)
He’s right, and there’s plenty here that made me uncomfortable - not least in those books that I'd read before without noticing this aspect. How strange, too, for a series of adventures for children to feature opium dens, slavery, alcoholism, kidnap and murder. I think Herge’s clean lines and flat colours, plus the slapstick stuff, are deceptive: Tintin’s a noble character in a world that is corrupt and cruel and dangerous.

Without wishing to excuse or downplay the racist depictions here, there’s clearly also an attempt to offer more nuance and counterpoint, such as in this sequence from The Blue Lotus where Tintin and his friend Chang try to dispel a few cultural myths.

Dispelling cultural myths in The Blue Lotus


I wonder how much of this is later revisionism. There’s clearly some of that going on. The jump in style between Tintin in the Land of the Soviets and the next book, Tintin in America, is so marked because the latter was redrawn. There’s evidence, too, that the revised books weren’t published in their original order. In Cigars of the Pharaohs, in volume 2 of this collection, Tintin is recognised because someone has a copy of Destination Moon, which is in volume 6.

Tintin the celebrity in Cigars of the Pharaohs


(This also suggests that Tintin is a celebrity because of his adventures, and the accounts of them exist in his own world as colourful comic books, too.)

My guess is that this moment in King Ottaker’s Sceptre is also a later edit, perhaps after someone wrote in:

Which Ottaker is which in King Ottaker's Sceptre?


Anyway. There’s a notable shift in gear with The Crab With the Golden Claws, which feels more mature and better plotted, and introduces us to the brilliant Captain Archibald Haddock, a drunk old sea-dog with a heart of gold. Part of what makes this story feel epic is where it breaks the newspaper-strip format, with full and half-page panels. When these happen out in the desert, the effect is like suddenly going widescreen, the adventures directed by David Lean. Again, it’s a story about drug-smuggling and there are racial caricatures, but Tintin solves the mystery using pluck and intelligence rather than good fortune.

After the disappointing The Shooting Star (an odd one about an alien island that produces huge mushrooms), we’re onto what’s surely the classic pairing - The Secret of the Unicorn and Red Rackham’s Treasure. I knew this one well and it’s a really good mystery, greatly helped by the focus on Captain Haddock. In Secret, we’re told the year is 1958 which came as a bit of a shock reading the adventures in sequence. Some 30 years have passed since Land of the Soviets and Tintin and his dog have not aged a day. It turns out that the original version of the strip was published between June 1942 and January 1943, so this is again another revision for the collected version. More than that, the stories have existed in a kind of timeless state. While Tintin in America mentioned Al Capone by name, we’ve had little sense of the real world. There has been no mention of the Second World War, the occupation of Tintin's native Belgium or that anything might have changed. I’ve since looked this up and see that The Crab With the Golden Claws was the first that Herge wrote while under occupation, and it’s tempting to try and see the gear-shift in the storytelling as some kind of response to real-world events. I’m not sure, but would like to know more.

Secret ends with Tintin directly addressing the reader to say the story is continued. Red Rackham’s Treasure begins with various suitors claiming to be descendants of the notorious pirate to get in on the treasure hunt. One of these, apparently as a sight gag, is a black man with very dark skin and big lips - so this kind of racist caricature isn’t only part of the early days of the series. On page 186 of my edition, we’re given the date Wednesday 23 July, suggesting this is still 1958.

There’s more continuity cock-up in The Seven Crystal Balls where we’re told of Bianca Castafiore that,
“she turns up in the oddest places: Syldavia, Borduria, the Red Sea… She seems to follows us around!” (p. 13)
But this is only the second time we’ve met her, and The Red Sea Sharks is in six books’ time. On the next page, General Alcazar seems to have met Haddock before, but Haddock wasn’t in that previous adventure at all. Land of Black Gold then features two more characters returning from previous books, and depends on a lot of coincidence. The books keep finding dramatic new locations round the world, but feel increasingly repetitive.

Then there’s something very different with Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon. This strip originally began in 1950, well ahead of the Space Race, and it's fascinating that neither the US nor USSR are the first to get to the lunar surface. The rocket here is, apparently purposefully, reminiscent of the Nazi's V-2 rocket, even down to the distinctive red and white check. That surely makes Professor Calculus a comedy version of Von Braun. Again, there's no mention of Nazis, the shadow of occupation or the Cold War that followed - and was in the background as this story was written. Tintin is the first human to walk on the Moon but this extraordinary historic moment happens outside of time.

Herge took pains to get the details right, and it's fun to see a spacecraft built to accommodate the fact that its crew would all be knocked unconscious by G-force. The astronauts speculate about the formation of craters (we now know they're created by impacts), and land and drive huge, heavy vehicles on the lunar surface that would be far too massive and costly to get there. I was also taken by the science they actually conduct:
“EXTRACT FROM THE LOG BOOK BY PROFESSOR CALCULUS
4th June - 2150 hrs. (G.M.T.)
Wolff and I spent the day studying cosmic rays, and making astronomical observations. Our findings have been entered progressively in Special Record Books Nos. I and II. The Captain and Tintin have nearly finished assembling the [reconnaissance] tank.” (p. 98)
They set up an observatory and a theodolite, and drive round in an enormous tank. And then they discover a huge cave system. Surely, surely, the moment Tintin lets go his safety line and drops into the abyss to rescue Snowy is an influence on Doctor Who doing the same in the The Satan Pit (2006).

Tintin falls in Explorers on the Moon

The Doctor falls in The Satan Pit


So much of this is jaw-dropping, remarkable and new. Really, my only problem with the Moon story is the villain, who returns from King Ottaker's Sceptre in a simple revenge plot, while a rival bunch of scientists eavesdrop on what Tintin is up to. It feels inconsequential.

Once they're back on Earth, Tintin is recognised as the first person to walk on the Moon in several of the books that follow. The Calculus Affair is set on Earth but feels no less huge given that Professor Calculus has - as well as all his technology for getting to the Moon - invented a super weapon. There's a chilling moment when we see a city destroyed, though it proves to be a model for demonstration purposes. Even so, this analogy for the Bomb is really effective. At one point, we also spot a book, "German Research in World War II", the first time the Tintin series references the conflict.

Tintin in Tibet (serialised 1958-59, book version 1960) seems quite similar to Nigel Kneale's Yeti stories - his TV play The Creature (1955) and the movie version The Abominable Snowman (1957) - and I wondered if Kneale had been an influence. Here, Tintin is on the trail of his friend Chang, last seen by us in The Blue Lotus - 15 books previously, and first published in the 1930s. Clearly, not so much time has passed for the two young friends. Tintin now seems to have a psychic ability, knowing innately that Chang is alive and in need of saving. Psychic powers seem permissible when he's among exotic natives.

The Castafiore Emerald is on a much smaller scale and set largely at Haddock's home, Marlinspike Hall. Haddock is not the most patient or progressive of people but is horrified by the treatment of a group of Travellers nearby and offers them land on which to camp. They are then suspected when Bianca Castafiore is robbed - playing into racial cliches. Yet Tintin maintains that the Travellers are innocent, even when evidence suggests otherwise. It's Herge trying to play against racist assumptions but there's no challenging of or comeuppance for the prejudiced authorities, and the Travellers leave without a word. The story's heart is in the right place but it's odd. The culprit turns out to be a bit of a joke, and there's little sense of the injustice done to the Travellers. In fact, a missing watch rather invites us to suspect them, too.

Flight 714 to Sydney involves the return of a whole load of friends and foes from previous books, and the plot reminded me a lot - and not in a good way - of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There are more returning characters in Tintin and the Picaros, including characters not seen since all the way back in The Broken Ear. If that's not very original, the story is full of suspense - our heroes walking headlong into a gilded cage, and a great sequence at the end when they get caught up in a crowd as they race to save the Thompsons from execution.

Our last sight of Tintin is in a tiny panel at the top of the final page. We then hear him on the final row, a speech bubble snaking away to a departing aircraft. And that's it: a rather understated end to his adventures and a great shame. For all the repeated jokes and perils, and the myriad returning characters that are hard to keep track of, it's all still fun - and now and again really thrilling.

The collection ends with Herge's script and rough sketches for two-thirds of Tintin and Alph-Art. It's fascinating to see his process, and the difference between the roughest of rough sketches and the couple of examples or more carefully realised outlines. The story itself is quite different from what's gone before - involving a celebrity modern artist who makes sculptures based on the letters of the alphabet. But there's the usual runaround and chases, Tintin surviving various attempts to shoot him and blow him up. It's hard to judge without the last third. Would it have done something different?

I'm also amazed that it's not been completed officially, and that, like Asterix, there aren't new adventures of Tintin. For one thing, the movie suggested an openness to adaptation on the part of the licence-holders. There's surely a story in what Tintin did during the war years, or in what he's up to now.

But then I think part of Tintin's appeal, and the only possible response to the racism contained in the stories, is that he's a thing of the past.

Thursday, July 09, 2020

Shadow of the Daleks

I've written one of the eight episodes of Shadow of the Daleks, a thrilling new audio adventure for the Fifth Doctor which is out later this year.

Written and recorded in lockdown, the eight 25-minute episodes are each written by a different writer and using the same cast of actors in different roles: Peter Davison (as the Doctor), Nicholas Briggs (the Daleks), Dervla Kirwan, Anjli Mohindra and Jamie Parker. 

The blurb for mine goes like this:
Something is very wrong. The Fifth Doctor is lost in the Time War, heading for an encounter with his oldest and deadliest enemies... the Daleks! 
The Bookshop at the End of the World by Simon Guerrier
It’s very easy to forget yourself and get lost in a bookshop. But in some bookshops more than most...
See also:

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Time Scope

Time Scope anthology of Doctor Who stuff
I very nobly gave a couple of things to Time Scope, a new unofficial and unauthorised anthology of Doctor Who stories, poetry and art - 100% of the money from which is going to the charity Scope. It's edited by Matthew Rimmer.
My things are both off-cuts from my work for Big Finish Productions. First, there's Survivors, an initial sketch outline I wrote in December 2009 about what might happen next to companion Sara Kingdom (Jean Marsh) after the events of my trilogy of stories, Home Truths, The Drowned World and The Guardian of the Galaxy, including the incarnation of the Doctor I would have paired her up with.

Then there's the pre-title sequence I wrote for my first draft of The Mega, a six-episode story based on an original outline from 1970 by Bill Strutton (writer of 1965 TV story The Web Planet). At the time, the plan was to record The Mega using just three actors: Katy Manning (who played companion Jo Grant on
TV), Richard Franklin (who played UNIT’s Captain Yates) and John Levene (UNIT’s Sergeant Benton). Around the time I was commissioned for this, news came of the sad death of Nicholas Courtney - who'd played UNIT's Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart on TV - and in my first audio play. I wanted to acknowledge his loss as well as set up the framing of the story, so wrote this opening scene. Then things changed and it no longer fitted.

Time Scope also includes contributions from both Katy Manning and Richard Franklin, as well as a number of other cast and crew from the various decades of Doctor Who.

Friday, July 03, 2020

The Making of OHMSS, by Charles Helfenstein

The Making of On Her Majesty's Secret Service, by Charles Helfenstein
I've long coveted this huge, exhaustive history of the James Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969), having first heard about it from my mate Samira Ahmed. Helfenstein details the history of the book, the drafts of the script, the day-by-day production on the movie (and pieces together some missing scenes), the release and legacy - including promotion and merchandise.

It is chock full of extraordinary images and insight. I shall be haunted by writer Richard Maibaum's obsession with scenes involving monkeys, which he tried to get into various Bond films and was thwarted each time. The material filming on 2 February 1969 of Lazenby chasing a villain down the Peter's Hill steps with the St Paul's Cathedral behind him echo the invasion by Cybermen, filmed on 8 September the previous year; the conclusion of the chase involving an underground train seem finally to have surfaced in Skyfall (2012).

My baby brother, who kindly bought this for my birthday, described it as the "Andrew Pixley of Bond", and I can think of no higher praise. I think the difference between Helfenstein and Pixley is that the latter rarely interviews cast and crew himself - thank heavens, as otherwise I'd never be asked to do anything. Helfenstein has endeavoured, over years, to speak to everyone involved and the book is a much a record of his friendships with key personnel such as director Peter Hunt. A last spread of images of the author with these people or visiting the locations shows how much this has been an epic labour of love.

If I don't share the author's passion for this particular movie, it's made me want to revisit it. I'm even more covetous of the follow-up volume on The Living Daylights and find myself picking over which title I'd want to subject to such study...

(Since you're asking, You Only Live Twice to cover Connery's dissatisfaction, the volcano-base set and all the stuff happening in '67, which would dovetail with my book on The Evil of the Daleks.)


Thursday, July 02, 2020

The Ipcress File, by Len Deighton

The Ipcress File by Len Deighton
I'm immersed in the world of Harry Palmer at the moment for a thing I'm writing. That's included finally getting round to The Ipcress File (1962), the novel that inspired the brilliant film.

The book is surprisingly different, including trips to Beirut and a Pacific island to watch the testing of a nuclear bomb. Harry Palmer isn't even in it, as the anonymous narrator tells us on page 34:
"Now my name isn't Harry, but in this business it's hard to remember whether it ever had been."
In the film, Palmer is played by Michael Caine, a Londoner born in 1933. Not-Harry in the book is from Burnley - completely changing how he'd sound - and perhaps a decade older, as we're told he was in the fifth form in 1939.

Despite the excursions abroad, the plot is basically the same, with the same mix of drab bureaucracy and imminent danger of death. There's the brilliant twist when the agent escapes from incarceration and discovers it's not been quite what it seems - which is so good I don't want to spoil it here, nearly 60 years after the book was first published.

But my general feeling is that the book is a poor relation to the film. The screenplay condenses the story, reducing the scale but making more focused, quicker-moving and sharper. Even minor characters in the movie are memorable - such as Tony Caunter's non-speaking American agent, a big guy with a distinctive glasses, a plaster over the bridge of the nose. The two men who stand out, I think, are the ones who are kind to our narrator in his hour of need. (He makes sure to pay them for their kindness.)

So I'm a bit surprised by the cover line on my battered second-hand copy of the book from 1995 the Sunday Times calling Deighton, "The poet of the spy story." Surely that's a better description of le Carre, whose prose is so much more beautiful than this clunky stuff. It's fine, it's fun enough, it's got some great moments... But the film is witty, stylish, and so classy that it holds its own against Bond.

Sunday, June 07, 2020

Peaks and Troughs, by Margery Mason

Subtitled "Never Quite Made It But What The Hell?", this is a memoir by Margery Mason (1913-2014), the actress I knew best for shouting "Boo!" in The Princess Bride, though the blurb makes a deal of her having been "trolley lady" in the Harry Potter film The Goblet of Fire.

Mason begins with her 90th birthday in 2003 - though a letter from 2005 pasted into my second-hand autographed copy says,
"In fact I wrote a lot of the book some ten years ago and then I looked at it last year and thought, no, it's too literary; I want it to sound as if I'm talking."
It does. She's immediately engaging, bubbling with energy, enthusiasm and self-effacement, while keen for her next job. Mason, we're told, learned to scuba-dive in her 80s, and was competing in tennis matches until around the same time, while her anecdotes about performances all round the world are peppered with notes on the opportunities afforded in these far-flung locales to swim outdoors. She was also an active member of the Communist Party, an (she says herself) ineffective member of Equity, and wrote, directed and produced as well as acted.

Mason admits she's always keen on getting a laugh, and this fun, lively memoir often breezes over events that must have been hard at first-hand. There is a lot of casual groping in her early life - from an uncle, from a stranger on a train, from strangers when she's working for ENSA in Egypt, and from two successive therapists, one male and one female. She brushes over details of a rape during the Second World War, mentioning it only to mitigate her impatience years later when an assault means another actress misses some rehearsals. The sense is that his fun, funny woman was also ruthless and unrelenting to work with.

Of all the stories and revelations, I was most struck by the mention of Patrick Troughton, who played her husband in A Family at War between 1970 and 1971, the series recorded in Manchester.
"Patrick and I used to share driving up and down [from London] on weekends and he seemed confident enough with me, perhaps because he was a bit of a speed merchant himself, never able to resist doing the ton on a certain bit of motorway. We were pulled over by the police once in my car, not for any offences but because they were doing some sort of check. The dodgy thing was that among the luggage I'd flung onto the back seat was a large transparent plastic bag of marijuana. Pat had asked me to get some for him and although I'd long given up any hope of having it work for me I could still get hold of it easily enough - well everybody could. Pat had forgotten it was there so was quite happy to respond to the officers' excited recognition of him as an ex-Doctor Who. 'Come on Pat, we're late already' I said, frantically looking round for something to throw over the bag. But they were still burbling on with 'Who was the chap who took over from you? The one with all the hair?' Finally I put the car in gear and we were nearly on our way when, 'Just a minute, just a minute.' (Oh God!) 'Did you say you came from London? Can I see your licence?' 'What? Why?' 'You're sure you're not from Luton?' 'Luton?' 'I live there. I'm sure I've seen you around.' 'I've never been to Luton in my life. I live in London. I'm an actress. I'm Mrs Porter, for God's sake!' 'Who?' 'Pat, tell him. We'll never get away. Tell him!' Pat did, but it so happened he didn't watch A Family at War so we left him only half-convinced I wasn't a secret denizen of Luton. He'd been a great Dr. Who fan though and thought Pat was the best of the lot, so one of us was happy and Pat later said he'd had quite a good time with the pot." (pp. 68-9).
Mason then proceeds to regale us with anecdotes about her much more effective experimentation with LSD.

As with Yootha Joyce and David Whitaker, Mason was with the Harry Hanson Court Players - in her case, on and off for 10 years from. She speaks of Hanson's "fondness for 'Anyone for tennis?' type plays" (p. 32), but counters the idea that weekly rep taught bad habits because there was little time for background research or navel-gazing (something she has little patience for anyway).

Short of work, between 1947 and 1948, Mason wrote her own play. Because "one of the characters had lesbian leanings", she had to go for a meeting at the censor's office. However, club theatres were exempt from the censor, so her play was put on at Oldham - where she'd been in rep alongside a very young Bernard Cribbins. You can still feel her pride more than half a century on:
"Sitting in an audience and hearing your lines get the laughs you'd hoped for takes a lot of beating." (p. 51)
Soon after this, Mason wrote and produced Babes in the Wood, a pantomime, and having made money from it dared to apply to run a summer season of rep in Bangor. This was just as her husband absconded with the money from their joint account, and she gives a good account of the struggles that followed.
"I put on the play Oldham had done, trusting the long arm of the censor didn't stretch to Ulster, and another one I'd hastily finished, happy, like Clem [her later mother, also an actress and sometime writer] in the past, to save on royalties [to other authors]." (p. 54)
With the 10-week season a success, Mason then established the New Theatre in Bangor, and ran it for 15 months.

She says in the book that this time in Bangor was in the 1960s, but my other research says that the opening night of the New Theatre in Bangor was on 4 October 1954, with the comedy For Better or Worse about a newly married couple. Mason produced and also played the bride's mother. Her husband was played by 26 year-old David Whitaker, who'd been with the Harry Hanson Court Players himself since 1951.

In the six months or so that Whitaker was in Bangor with Mason, he also produced (that is, directed) three of the productions and seems also to worked in radio serials in Northern Ireland - his first broadcast work, as far as I can tell. The energetic, enthusiastic Mason may also have encouraged him to write as well - for one thing, he was in the cast of a remounted version of her Babes of the Wood.

Within a year of leaving Bangor, Whitaker was co-writing with his mum Helen, and she made first contact with the BBC to get their work on screen. The following year, in 1957, Whitaker was performing with the York Repertory Company, who also staged his play A Choice of Partners. A member of the BBC's script unit was in the audience and the play was subsequently adapted for TV. By the end of the year, he'd given up acting to join the script department for three months. He was still there in 1963 when the department was closed down - and he was moved on to Doctor Who.

Mason doesn't mention Whitaker or anyone else in the Bangor company by name. So my hopes that she would acknowledge her influence on him were disappointed. But I read her book in a single sitting, caught up in her vivacious, steely energy - so how could he have not been?