Sunday, August 25, 2013

Crossing the Line

Illustration by EH Shepherd
I've written a very short, unsettling story, "Crossing the Line" which you can read free online. It's based on AA Milne's rhyme for children, "Lines and Squares", published in When We Were Very Young (1924).

Friday, August 23, 2013

Victorian dinosaurs

Earlier this week, the Dr pointed me in the direction of Professor Joe Cain's splendid talk on the dinosaur sculptures at Crystal Palace, which you can watch here:

It's a great talk with some amazing insights and pictures - including of the insides of the dinosaurs. I love those dinosaurs and visit them a lot. (They've also appeared twice on the cover of Doctor Who Magazine.)

Then, last night, Nimbos and I attended "Planet of the Dinosaurs", a talk at the Royal Observatory Greenwich, where Dave Hone, paleontologist from Queen Mary gave a history of the dinosaurs as, on the vast Planetarium screen, Earth's continents shifted before our very eyes.

My favourite fact of the evening was about the very well preserved fossils found in Liaoning province in northern China. Paleontologists have not only found the remains of small, feathered dinosaurs, they also know the fauna and weather. In the cool drizzle, dinosaurs would have run through the magnolia blossom and between rhododendrons. Exactly the plants and weather of a Victorian garden - or the Crystal Palace.

Troodon formosus and Magnolia by John Conway

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Steven, Leela and Mel

Out in shops now is Doctor Who Magazine's 50th anniversary special - "The Companions".

There's plenty of excitement inside, including three interviews by me. I ask Peter Purves if he's an apologist for William Hartnell, Louise Jameson if Leela was meant to be black and Bonnie Langford if making Doctor Who was more demanding or pressured than other TV shows. ("It was just weirder!" she said.)

Friday, August 16, 2013

House of Cards vs House of Cards

For my birthday, Nimbos kindly presented me with the House of Cards trilogy. I felt some trepidation putting it on; having watched the original serial transfixed in 1990, how would it bear up?

It's a majestic bit of television, bold and thrilling and with a perfect cast. The wheeze (as I'm sure you know) is that Margaret Thatcher has just left office as Prime Minister, and the Tory party are in the midst of electing a replacement – as was happening in real life as the first episode was broadcast. The new, safe-bet leader decides not to promote his Chief Whip to ministerial office but keep him in his place. The whip, Francis Urquhart, is not best pleased and begins to take his revenge while also scheming his way to the top job.

Urquhart is written and played as a mix of Macbeth and Richard III, complete with soliloquies direct to the audience that make us complicit in his scheming. Ian Richardson is brilliantly charismatic and sinister, and Diane Fletcher makes for a cool Lady Macbeth. Colin Jeavons is a deliciously grotesque aid to Urquhart, grinning obsequiously as he helps destroy lives.

The story is gripping and twisty, though I felt that someone should have noticed sooner that Urquhart is the only candidate not to suffer calamity.

There are other things that show how much has changed: a Cabinet meeting where there are no women; a candidate for Prime Minister being asked if he's too young at 55; ace reporter Mattie Storin leaving a conference in mid-flow to find a phone box where she can call in her story.

But other things seem still very much on the nose: the stark divide in the Tory party between old money grandees and the upstart self-made men; the queasy relationship between high politics and those who run the press; the sex and drugs and scandal that lurk beneath the veneer. It's cynicism about politics still feels very now.

I was also fascinated by the use of the Palace of Westminster – or rather how the production dodged round not being able to film inside the building. As so often, Manchester Town Hall has enough passing similarity to the corridors of power that most viewers wouldn't notice (and it was conveniently near the old Commons Chamber set at Granada).

The thing that most jarred was the climactic scene. Mattie meets Francis on a secret roof garden supposedly above Central Lobby, and yet it looks out onto the clock face of Big Ben with Victoria Tower just behind. That means it was filmed on the roof of what's now Portcullis House, the other side of the road from the Palace – a realisation which, pedant that I am, rather spoiled the dramatic end.

But it's striking that what makes Urquhart so compelling is not his charm or intelligence so much as his ruthlessness. He can be wrong, he can be monstrous, but we're drawn to him by his determination despite the odds. His soliloquies - where he spells out exactly what he plans to do - make us complicit and, even when in the last episode he commits the most brutal acts, we're completely on his side. The last scene is brilliant: he won't tell us what he's thinking but we don't need him to as we've got under his skin.

The Dr and I then worked our way through the recent American reworking of House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey. It's a slick, thrilling production, again with a very good cast. As it comprises 13 episodes rather than four, it tells a much bigger, more complex story – and yet follows the same beats as the original and shares characters and even whole scenes. At one point we thought they'd abandoned the idea of Congressman Peter Russo following the plot line of Roger O'Neill from the original, but having digressed for a couple of episodes the story made its way back to the old path.

Apart from the running time, I think there are two main differences between the two shows. First, the American version has more women characters and gives them more to do. Urquhart's wife doesn't merely egg him on or make herself scarce as required. Zoe Barnes isn't the sole female journalist on screen, but the latest in a line of plucky women holding those in power to task. In fact, Janine Skorsky,  the older, more experienced reporter, is a brilliant addition: Zoe's development as a character is almost entirely defined by the changing way Janine treats her.

The other difference is that Urquhart and Stamper aren't nearly such clear-cut villains; they're ruthless, yes, but we also see moments of kindness and doubt. They're clearly conflicted about doing what they realise must be done. But it's more than that.

Where the UK show tells us baldly that Urquhart is aiming to be Prime Minister, the US version never quite tells us what he's scheming for. At first it looks like he wants revenge for not getting the job he wanted; then it seems he's merely trying to make a point. We're told about something he wants towards the end of the series – which I won't spoiler here – but the indications are that even that is only a stepping stone.

It ought to be obvious he's aiming to be President, especially if we know the UK version, but Urquhart never says so – not to his wife or mistress or us. That means we're never complicit, and our sympathies are divided between him and the other characters.

In fact, I think the series rather turns us against him in Episode 8. Until that point, we've had little evidence that his schemes and tricks aren't all part of political service – he works hard to get legislation passed that people seem to believe in, and the people he defeats or tricks are shown to be idiots or villains. Yes, he's ruthless but that's how you get things done, and we seem him help or just get on with ordinary everyday folk and that makes him okay.

But in Episode 8, we learn the backstories of Urquhart and Russo. Russo has had a hard life, became a congressman despite that and is still in touch with his roots. Urquhart – again without spoiling things – has been living a lie.

The episode shows that both men are more complex than they appear, but while it explains and almost excuses Russo's shortcomings, it makes us wonder what else we don't know about Urquhart. We learn not to trust him, and as a result the things he does over the next few episodes are done at a distance. That he seems hesitant only makes us less sure of him.

Is this doubt a conscious effort to make Urquhart less black and white? If so, I don't think it's an improvement.

Or, is this uncertainty inevitable given that the US version was devised as an ongoing series not a self-contained serial? Does such doubt lend itself to the greater screen time? The follow-up to the UK series, To Play The King, lost something from Urquhart being in power and seeming unassailable, and a whole season with Spacey as President would merely be a less feel-good West Wing...

So I'm optimistic for the second season if a bit disappointed by the first. But my disappointment is largely because I was very quickly caught up in the US version. It's more realistic, better at showing what politics is and how it affects people's lives, and the women get to be more than just furniture.

I'd not expected to like the translation at all, so how very disloyal is that?

Thursday, August 15, 2013


I am on Tumblr now - - posting odd bits of nonsense that will dovetail with this 'ere blog. Just posted this lovely publicity image for Graceless III wot I wrote, a portrait of Ciara Janson and Laura Doddington by Alex Mallinson.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Profumo and the origins of Doctor Who

On 2 November, I'll be at Doctor Who Day at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, talking about the beginning of Doctor Who in 1963 and the context of the times.

As homework, I've just read An English Affair - Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo by Richard  Davenport-Hines, an account of the political scandal that erupted in the summer of '63. The suggestion, which Davenport-Hines shows to be unfounded, is that in the same period that the Cuban missile crisis "brought the world to the brink of nuclear war" (p. 232), the British Minister of War was sharing a prostitute with a Russian diplomat and swapping state secrets in bed.

It's a strange book, often shocking, sometimes very funny and ultimately desperately sad. It's difficult not to read about the events - the lies, the dodgy fabrication of evidence and trial by gossip, the ruination of so many people's lives - without feeling a mix of grubbiness and despair.

Conveniently for me, the first two thirds of the book are all about the context of the times, detailing the history, position and worldview of the key players - Prime Minister Macmillan, War Minister Profumo, Lord Astor, Stephen Ward and the "good-time girls" Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies - as well as three groups of people involved in their fate (landlords, hacks and spies).

To begin with I found it hard-going: its densely packed with characters - ministers, MPs, celebrities of one kind or another, commentators and pressmen. Most are introduced fleetingly, and there's a sense we're expected to know them already as their perspectives shape events. I soon learned to let the cascade of names wash over me and just hurried on with the story.

There are occasional, brilliant portraits of people, some with only small roles in the narrative. For example, one hack gets two long paragraphs of introduction that tell us lots about the working practices of the time. We're told he's important, yet he's then only mentioned eight more times in the next 150 pages:
"Peter Earle was the News of the World journalist who did much to publicise the Profumo Affair. He had been investigating call-girl rings for some time, and was scampering ahead of the pack in 1963. Earle was a tall, gangly man who cultivated clandestine contacts with policemen and criminals. They would telephone him with tips, using codenames such as 'Grey Wolf' or 'Fiery Horseman'. He was unfailingly ceremonious with 'ladies', though he called his wife Dumbo. Office colleagues were addressed as 'old cock' or 'my old china'. Earle's speech was peppered with phrases like 'Gadzooks!' of 'By Jove!' When he agreed with someone he exclaimed: 'Great Scot, you're right!' To quell office disputes he would say: 'Let there be no more murmuring.'
Earle was the archetype  of the seedy Fleet Street drunk. He scarcely ate, but survived on oceans of whisky, which he called 'the amber liquid'. He held court in the upstairs bar of the News of the World pub, the Tipperary in Bouverie Street, or at weekends in the Printer's Pie in Fleet Street. 'Hostelry' and 'watering-hole' were his words for pubs. 'Barman, replenishment for my friends,' he would call when ordering a round. Earle had a prodigious memory for the details of old stories, talked like Samuel Johnson, and was an avid gawper at bosoms. Dressed in his Gannex raincoat, he left on investigative forays clutching a briefcase which was empty except for a whisky bottle. His doorstep technique was based on devastating effrontery; his questioning was indignant; and if rebuffed he mustered a baleful glare of wounded dignity. Either because he could not write intelligible English or because he was always drunk, his copy was unusable. He jumbled his facts and muddled their sequence. Subs had to read his incoherent copy, patiently talk him through it, and prise out a story that was fit to be printed."
Richard Davenport-Hines, An English Affair - Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, pp. 191-2.
If the supporting cast is too numerous and indiscriminate, Davenport-Hines is good at bringing the main characters to life with rounded (and sometimes contradictory) evidence: we get a real sense of the weariness of the war veteran Macmillan, Astor's failed efforts to get his mother's approval, the flightiness of Keeler and Rice-Davies, and there's this extraordinary insight into Profumo and his marriage:
"After six years there was sparring as well as glamour in the Profumo marriage. Valerie Profumo compiled a list of reproaches which suggest how tedious her husband's roaming eye had become. She resented his assumption that all pretty women, or preferably 'girls', were 'fair game' for him. 'You will stretch any manners, at any time, to do this - not quietly and discreetly, but laughing and showing off and behaving like an adolescent,' she complained. 'The way you kiss women you hardly know "goodbye"' was another irritation. So, too, was the tailoring of his trousers ('surely there must be some way of concealing your penis')."
Ibid., pp. 60-1.
The book's at its best when using peculiar details to give a vivid sense of the period. We're reminded that National Service was just ending, so that almost all adult men had done military service, with obedience and hierarchy drummed into them. There's lots on the prevailing ignorance about and poor quality of sex, gruff attitudes to homosexuality, the pressures on women to marry well and live meek, domestic lives - in short, there's a drudging sense of bland uniformity. And then there's the odder, unconscious strangeness:
"The spirit of these times was represented by the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. This far-reaching legislation was prepared in committee, and passed unanimously without a word of debate in either the Commons or the Lords. It covered eventualities that were hard to imagine (Section 1 specified that a man committed rape if he induced a married woman to have sexual intercourse with him by impersonating her husband), and showed the hidden stresses of the period by criminalising activities that many people thought inoffensive. Section 23 (which was invoked after the arrest of Stephen Ward in 1963) created the criminal offence of procuration of a girl under twenty-one. This provision meant that if someone introduced a male to a woman who was over the age of consent (sixteen), but under the age of twenty-one, and the pair subsequently had a sexual romp, then the introducer had committed a criminal offence. Introducing a man to such a girl at a party or in a pub, or joining in his bantering chat-up, could be the prelude to a criminal offence if they later had sex together (anywhere in the world). By the early 1960s most university graduates, and much of the population under twenty-five, were criminals if the law was interpreted as it was in the charges levelled against Ward. As this law remained in force until 1994/95, many readers of this book will have committed the crime of procuration."
Ibid., pp. 109-10.
The last third of the book focuses on the exposure of the scandal in early 1963 and the trial in June. Davenport-Hines concludes that the police and press effectively colluded to stitch-up Stephen Ward, and Astor and the Macmillan Government were casualties of that offensive. But no one comes out of the book very well: Astor comes across as a coward; Profumo devoted himself after the scandal to charity, but was still propositioning young women in his 70s. Davenport-Hines says of one particular bit of legal trickstering to ensure Ward would be found guilty,
"This exceptional proceeding - this corrupt, contemptible sequence of events".
Ibid., p. 323.
But that might do for any or all of this story.

Yet Davenport-Hines seems to be on the side of Profumo and Astor, or at least sees what befell them as a terrible calamity, where the fine old order of gentlemanly oversight was deposed by a rabid, tabloid mob. His own introduction, where he places himself in the story - a child of an establishment father who moved in similar circles to Profumo and who kept a mistress - suggests that this is a tale of his own loss of innocence. He says the Profumo affair gave licence to an industry of celebrity gossip and scandal, where traducing reputations has become all that matters in the media. He doesn't mention Leveson, but there's an implicit sense that all the most dodgy and criminal practices of the press have their origin here.

And yet his own contextualisation of the events tells a different story: the forces at work had been there for some decades before Profumo even met Keeler. The tabloids had covered sex scandals and delighted in ruining lives. The police had trumped up charges against others, too. There's no mention, for example, of Alan Turing, whose treatment by the establishment (on the basis of a potential security risk due to his sex life) compares horribly with Profumo.

So what makes Profumo different? I think it's that the scandal was just the tip of the iceberg. Profumo might not have been trading secrets, but he was sleeping with Keeler, and she was receiving money from her other wealthy lovers. The more the press delved into the story, the more salacious detail they found - about Keeler, about other people.

But there was more to it than that: in July 1963, a month after Ward's trial, Kim Philby was finally named as the famous spy ring's 'third man' - a cricketing term, suggestive of the establishment and the old boy's network. In September, Lord Denning's report on the Profumo affair provided yet more juicy detail about improprieties riddling the system.

The problem was not that the press and police colluded - no matter how shocking their behaviour still seems. The establishment was more sinning than sinned against; for all the hype and circus, ministers and MPs whose authority rested on a gentlemanly traditions of paternalism were caught living a lie. Davenport-Hines says the scandal dogged the Tories until the late 70s and the Margaret Thatcher becoming leader, but I don't think the lessons were learnt. As the Tory Government of the 1980s and 90s made public pronouncements on single mothers, gay people and the way we all live our lives, MPs and ministers kept being caught out in affairs and sex scandals - undermining the rhetoric.

That's the real result of Profumo: a loss of deference to authority not because of who exposed it, but because the exposure showed it wasn't deserved. If we learnt not to trust politicians, it's because of their own actions.

I said I read the book looking for context on the origins of Doctor Who. Davenport-Hines' final paragraph neatly sums up the effect of the scandal, but might also be a mission statement for the BBC's new show:
"People's visions were distorted forever by the outlandish novelties of the summer of 1963. Afterwards everything still looked reassuringly familiar, but was weirdly twisted."
Ibid., p. 345.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Doctor Who: Strictly Fight Monsters

Doctor Who Adventures #326 is in all good shops now. Among its many delights there's "Strictly Fight Monsters", a daft four-page comic strip by me, deftly illustrated by the amazing John Ross and coloured by Alan Craddock. The Doctor and Clara must pit their wits against an alien Bruce Forsyth, and I'm tediously pleased with the final panel of the strip - though you'll have to buy the mag to see why.

Thanks to Craig Donaghy for commissioning me and editor Natalie Barnes for kind permission to post the first page here.