Thursday, December 31, 2020

Cinema Limbo: Highlander II

I'm again a guest on the Cinema Limbo podcast, in which Jeremy Phillips looks anew at neglected old films. This time, he inflicted on me Highlander II

We've previously discussed Ryan's Daughter and the 1976 version of King Kong.

And here's me in more positive form on some of amazing non-Bond films starring Sean Connery.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

FREE - Santa Benny at the Bottom of the Sea

That splendid lot at Big Finish have a special Christmas present for you all - a free download of Dame Lisa Bowerman reading my new short story, "Santa Benny at the Bottom of the Sea". Merry Christmas!

Blurb as follows:

'It will, I admit, be something of a challenge. But you thrive on challenges. And you have experience in communing with psychic populations.'
'So have you, Brax.' 
'A little, yes. Bernice, this is important. And very regrettably, I don't fit the suit.'

Deep under the sea, Nessa, Freng and Strong are trying very hard to be nice. Because if they are naughty, then Santa won’t come and give them presents. And they do want presents very much. But what does Santa really want from them? And what does being nice *really* involve..?

This story comes from Bernice Summerfield: The Christmas Collection, and is offered free for a limited time only, December 2020.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Happy Times and Places

Image of Maxtible from The Evil of the Daleks
Waaah!
I'm Toby Hadoke's guest on the Happy Times and Places podcast this week. At my bidding, Toby watches / listens to the 1967 Doctor Who story The Evil of the Daleks and shares the ideas inside his brain. These include which actors dated who, and how good director Derek Martinus was in his casting. Toby also has to guess my favourite things from each of the seven episodes.

You may like to now that I wrote a book about The Evil of the Daleks, and we recreated the sets of episode 1 for Doctor Who Magazine's recent production design special.


Thursday, December 10, 2020

Doctor Who Magazine 559


The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is full of festive treats. Rhys Williams, Gavin Rymill and I have attempted to recreate the studio sets of missing 1965 Christmas special The Feast of Steven by exhaustively picking over photographs and production paperwork, and interviewing production assistant Michael E Briant and fans Jeremy Bentham, Ian McLachlan and Marc Platt who watched it go out. Some archive interviews and Ian Levine's diaries also came into play. It has been quite the endeavour...

(Inevitably, the day the issue is released, a new photograph turns up with some additional clues, including traces of fake snow. But anyway...)

There's also the second part of my feature on David Whitaker's contributions to the early history of the Daleks.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

World-Building: How Science Sculpts Science Fiction

It me
Last week, I was on an online panel organised by IPAC and and the Keck Institute for Space Studies, discussing the ways that science-fiction writers create fantastical worlds. A little intimidatingly, the other panelists were Becky Chambers, Mary Robinette Kowal and John Scalzi, all under the eye of moderator Phil Plait. Here's the full thing:

The time difference meant that the panel started at 1 am for me - so, rather fittingly, I was calling in from the future.

Thanks to Dr. Jessie Christiansen for inviting me and the expert team who put it all together.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Doctor Who Magazine 558

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine includes my feature on the role of David Whitaker in developing early Dalek mythology and helping to make them a cultural phenomenon. As story editor on the first year of Doctor Who, Whitaker commissioned the first Dalek story from writer Terry Nation, defended it from BBC management who didn't approve, and then - when the Daleks proved a huge success - worked with Nation to exploit them across various media.

The article coincides with a beautiful new edition of the Dalek comic strips from the mid-1960s that Whitaker probably wrote most of, and the brand new Daleks! animated series that takes many of its cues from that strip.

Saturday, November 07, 2020

Dad

Yesterday, we buried my father. 

It has been a fraught week, trying to anticipate changes to lockdown rules relating to funerals - whether we could go, whether I could stay over or would have to drive a 370-mile round trip in one day, whether we could get childcare so the Dr could come too. On Thursday morning, there were police outside the children's school checking that everyone socially distanced and did not mix households, and so I made sure I had the order of service printed and in the car in case I got stopped on the way down.

But we got there, and on a sunny, cold hillside just outside Winchester we gathered with family and a few friends. It was odd being with people anyway - the small gathering still the largest group I've been in since the beginning of March. And it was unsettling, being with family and Dad's friends but him not being there. I kept glancing round, expecting to see him.

Dad wasn't religious but a former bishop presided, an old friend of my parents' who nicely judged the God stuff. I read a short thing of Dad's various catchphrases which, to my surprise, got a lot of laughs. My elder brother read an email from Dad's brother stuck in the US, and my baby brother followed with a reading that Dad had read at his own father's funeral in 2002. There were other bits and pieces, and we ended with a bluetooth speaker playing Bach's Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C - the music Dad had played in the church while waiting for Mum to arrive for their wedding. That music was the only thing Dad had asked for when my elder brother asked him what he might want. Otherwise, he'd not been very helpful on that score. "I won't be there," he'd said.

It was exhausting and emotional, and I stumbled through the business of speaking to people. The rules don't allow a wake but we managed to have lunch and raise a glass of fizz, and then toasted the new grandchild Dad sadly missed by a couple of weeks. And then another cheer at the news Biden was ahead in Pennsylvania...

I made myself go into the room where he spent his last days, where we'd tended to him, where he died. Mum gave me the book Dad had clung to during his last stay in hospital and then when he'd come home, the last book he (re)read - HV Morton's In Search of England, a battered, cherished copy that Dad's mum bought Dad's Dad for Christmas 1936, when they were courting. It seems to be a book all about a lost but almost tangible past... I've also got one of his bright, colourful ties because he didn't want us wearing black at the funeral, and a couple of plants from the garden.

And then a long drive home through an extraordinary sunset, the last few miles down deserted roads as if it were the dead of night not early evening. There were fireworks all around as I got out of the car, defiant celebration that played havoc with the children's bedtime. So it was straight into that and emails and the various bits of work I'm late on. And so it goes. "It's just we've started a new chapter," as Dad would have said.

He was always keen on meeting bad news with something positive, and we've set up a memorial fund in his name with proceeds going to the charity Sense, whose work he knew first-hand:

http://timguerrier.muchloved.com

Monday, November 02, 2020

Bookshop

If you are so minded, I've created a Bookshop list of things I've written

Bookshop.org, which launched int the UK this morning, is an online bookshop "with a mission to financially support local, independent bookshops", according to the blurb. That seems like a good idea.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Santa Benny at the Bottom of the Sea

"Santa Benny at the Bottom of the Sea" is a new, festive science-fiction short story by me, to be featured in Bernice Summerfield: The Christmas Collection in December. The audiobook is narrated by Lisa Bowerman and the blurb goes like this:

An anthology of festive tales featuring Bernice Summerfield.

Christmas… Advent… Midwinter Festival… Spiriting… No matter what you call it on your home planet, this magical holiday at the end of the year, when the nights are dark, and the lights are sparkly, is the perfect time for telling stories...

And who doesn’t have a tale or two to tell about Christmas? Certainly not Benny.

Did she ever tell you about the time she had to escape from a herd of rampaging battle-armoured cyborg reindeer? Or the time she had to convince three tentacled young sea creatures that she was the real Santa? Or the time she nearly let an evil deity back into the world just in time for New Year…

These ten stories are collected from all across Benny’s eventful life, from St Oscar’s to the Braxiatel Collection, to Legion and even in the Unbound Universe...

The stories are:

  • Collector’s Item by Eddie Robson
  • Santa Benny at the Bottom of the Sea by Simon Guerrier
  • Tap by Mark Clapham
  • Glory to the Reborn King by Matthew Griffiths
  • Signifiers of the Verphidiae by Tim Gambrell
  • The Frosted Deer by Sophie Iles
  • Vistavision by Victoria Simpson
  • Wise Women by Q
  • Null Ziet by Scott Harrison
  • Bernice Summerfield and the Christmas Adventure by Xanna Eve Chown 

Friday, October 16, 2020

Doctor Who Magazine 557

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is full of excitements old and new, from interviews with the cast and crew of 1964's Marco Polo to a look at the forthcoming YouTube mini-series Daleks! 

I'm in it, too, talking to Dan Tostevin about my forthcoming audio trilogy, Wicked Sisters. And I'm busy on a fun thing for next issue...

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Threading the Labyrinth, by Tiffani Angus

Toni Hammond is in her office in New Mexico when she's called by a lawyer in England and told she's inherited an estate. Two weeks later, she arrives at the house and gardens known as The Remains. The property dates back more than 500 years but is in a sorry state, the result of neglect and a plane crashing into it during the Second World War. Toni has obligations back in Santa Fe but is drawn to the house and its history, and the garden crowded with ghosts...

Threading the Labyrinth is the debut novel by my friend Tiffani Angus, published by Unsung Stories whose books I've followed closely. It's a strange and compelling story, as Toni - and we - learns the story of the house and gardens through the lives of the people who've tended them. We cut away to four stories from the past - in the 1770s, the early 1600s, the Second World War and then the 1860s. There are mysteries to unpick - the identity of spectres, the links between different generations - and it's never quite as simple as first appears. It's rich and vivid, full of characters who feel rounded and real.

Toni is an American in England for the first time, a little out of her depth and overwhelmed by the cultural differences. But Tiffani the author feels utterly at home in the English past, her characters and their worldviews all utterly convincing. Many of them share a love of the gardens, of grubbing in the soil, and that work compensating somehow for frustrated hopes and desires. It's a strange, unsettling ghost story, less about what is lost in the remains but how the past threads through us.

Thursday, October 01, 2020

DWM special on production design

The latest special edition of Doctor Who Magazine is devoted to production design. Among the delights are some things by me:

Dr Who and the Daleks (1965)

Bill Constable was responsible for the look of the original Peter Cushing movie. I spoke to Bill's daughter Dee - who shared some previously unseen artwork from the film - and biographer Olga Sedneva, as well as Dr Fiona Subotsky, whose late husband Milton produced the movie. (Fiona also wrote Dracula for Doctors, which I read last year.)

The Evil of the Daleks (1967)

With the help of original production designer Chris Thompson, Gav Rymill and I have attempted to recreate the sets from the missing first episode of this classic Dalek story.

Michael Pickwoad (2010-2017)

To accompany a "new" interview with the late, great Michael Pickwoad, Sophie Iles and I interviewed his daughter Amy, who worked with him in the art department on Doctor Who.


Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Wicked Sisters cover

Big Finish have put up Tom Newsom's amazing cover art for Doctor Who - Wicked Sisters, the trilogy of audio stories I've written that is out in November.


Wicked Sisters stars Peter Davison as the Doctor, Louise Jameson as Leela, Ciara Janson as Abby and Laura Doddington as Zara, with Anjli Mohindra as Captain Riya Nehru and Dan Starkey as the Sontarans. It's directed by Lisa Bowerman and produced by Mark Wright.

ETA The Big Finish website has added a trailer for Wicked Sisters, blurbs for the three stories and a full cast list.

The Doctor is recruited by Leela for a vital mission on behalf of the Time Lords.

Together, they must track down and destroy two god-like beings whose extraordinary powers now threaten all of space and time. These beings are already known to the Doctor.

Their names are Abby and Zara...

1. The Garden of Storms

In pursuit of Abby and Zara, Leela pilots the TARDIS to the eye of a violent storm in time. Yet she and the Doctor find themselves in an idyllic garden city, the people contented and happy. They soon discover that this bliss comes at a terrible cost, and that Abby and Zara are determined to put things right… so how can Leela and the Doctor stop them?

2. The Moonrakers

Life is hard for the early pioneers building the first settlements on the Moon. The laws of Earth don’t apply here, and there are tussles over limited resources vital to survival. Arriving on the Moon, the Doctor and Zara discover that an aggressive alien species lies in wait. Yet there’s something very strange about these particular Sontarans: they refuse to fight.

3. The People Made of Smoke

Abby and Zara strive to use their powers for good but it’s clear they are damaging reality - and allowing monstrous creatures to bleed through from beyond. The Doctor knows he can only save the universe by destroying his friends. But just how much might he be willing to sacrifice if there’s a chance to save them?

Cast:

Peter Davison (The Doctor)

Louise Jameson (Leela)

Ciara Janson (Abby)

Laura Doddington (Zara)

Lisa Bowerman (Smoke Creatures)

Pandora Clifford (Zeeb / Zeet)

Paul Courtenay Hyu (Wei)

Nicky Goldie (Polk)

Tom Mahy (Brody)

Anjli Mohindra (Captain Riya Nehru)

Dan Starkey (Stent / Sontarans) 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Edy Hurst's War of the Worlds

Edy Hurst's War of the Worlds podcast
I'm a guest on a special episode of comedian Edy Hurst's podcast devoted to The War of the Worlds, nattering about the life of HG Wells, his influence on George Orwell and on Doctor Who, and some other stuff.

Interlude 3: Justice for Wells w/ Simon Guerrier

Apple: apple.co/3hQYpIS Spotify: spoti.fi/3kySidU

You can still listen to the BBC radio documentary I produced on HG Wells and the H-Bomb, while "Alls Wells That Ends Wells" is an extra on the DVD of 1966 Doctor Who story The Ark:

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Cinema Limbo: Ryan's Daughter

I'm a guest on the latest Cinema Limbo podcast, talking in detail with host Jeremy Philips about Ryan's Daughter (1970). I'm a big fan of director David Lean and there's a lot of admire about this one, and yet it doesn't quite work. But I think that's what make its interesting.

As preparation, back in March I read The Painted Banquet by costume designer Jocelyn Rickards. But sadly I didn't know about (because it hadn't been released) Paul Benedict Rowan's making of, which details the troubles I had only suspected...

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Doctor Who Magazine 556

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features a cardboard TARDIS set to build, a detailed look at 1964 story Marco Polo and an exhaustive look at the new multi-platform jamboree Time Lord Victorious

The latter includes a brief word from me, as I've written a short story, Lesser Evils, and edited Master Thief by Sophie Iles. There's also stuff from me in the preview for Shadow of the Daleks. These audio adventures are all out next month.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

V for Victory, by Lissa Evans

V for Victory, by Lissa Evans
Entirely selfishly, I bought this for the Dr's birthday so that I could read it. It's the third in a trilogy, after Crooked Heart and its prequel, Old Baggage - both of which I adored. 

We pick up with young Noel Bostock and his adopted aunt Vee - though she's neither of those things officially. Now going under the name Mrs Margery Owens, she and Noel bugger on through the chaos of north London at the fag-end of the Second World War. At any moment of any day, a V2 might fall on them and it's exhausting - not least because the chores and home-schooling must still somehow be done. Still, there's romance kindling in the air for each of them. And then they both stumble into people who know something of their past - and might expose their secrets...

As before, there's a wealth of telling historical detail worked deftly into the breezy tale, which I knocked through in a matter of days. It's so teeming with life and emotion. We really feel the outrage of Winnie the Warden discovering that her harrowing real-life experience has been filletted by her sister for a sexy novel. Or there's Noel's infatuation with a girl who's moved away:

"Noel recognized Genevieve Lumb's neat but forceful handwriting. Even the thought that she had licked the envelope was quite physically stirring." (p. 53).

The remarkable thing is that these extraordinary, unprecedented times feel utterly real. But it's also a delight to spend time in the company of good people just trying to get by, despite all the crap going on. 

I was especially moved by the ending, where Vee and Noel face some tricky emotional stuff relating to his biological parents. It's so perfectly done, so impossible to describe here without spoiling. At one point, Vee wonders what might have happened if she'd not made a connection with this awkward teen at a critical moment, how nearly he might have been lost. But we leave them happy, the war over and a new world on the horizon. After all the devastation, what survives is the love. 

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Where Shall We Run To?, by Alan Garner

Where Shall We Run To?, by Alan Garner
My brother got me this as house-warming present. What feels an age ago but was really at New Year, he and I tramped bits of Alderley Edge described here, a not-too-far car journey from where I now live.

The rather fancy, well-to-do area has changed dramatically since Garner's wartime childhood. He vividly conveys dirt and poverty and childhood disease. There's his parents coming to wave at him through a window when he's in hospital with diphtheria, or the childhood friend who he shared adventures with, and,

"Then Marina died." (p. 92)

It's just one example of a devastating punchline. I was particularly hit by his sweet description of the US soldiers stationed nearby, who he'd saluted and call to from his porch as they marched by, and they'd salute and call back as if he were an official watchman. The Yanks include an American despatch rider - "the first black face I'd seen" (p. 72) who is respectful to Garner's mum and gives the boy gum and chocolate, and you feel the connection made, reaching across the ocean from Garner's small, parochial world. It's warm and fun - and then undercut by the final words of the chapter.

"The Yanks went. Their ship was sunk, and they drowned. From the porch, I kept watch." (p. 76)

It's not just the Yanks who are lost; Garner is mourning people, phrases and ways of doing things long since gone. Not all of it is rose-tinted: there's a constant fear of bullies and fights, the teachers are just as capable of violence, and with the war on there's a constant threat of death - a feeling I think we've got used to living with again recently. It's vividly conveyed from the perspective of a child, too, so we sometimes have to join the dots to understand what's happening, such as how seriously ill he was. He's also not always well behaved, such as when he shoves his friend Harold into a clump of nettles.

At the end, we skip forward many years, to the 50s, the 70s and then beyond, with short anecdotes that pick up on elements from before. The book begins with child-Alan finding what he think might be an unexploded bomb; in 1955 and with experience from National Service, he knows to spot a real one. Then there's a sweet coda to a story about a contest at school, where he finally gets his due prize. And finally, a catch-up with Harold in later life. 

Garner won a scholarship when still very young which took his life in a very different direction to Harold's - who bunked off school but retained a connection to the local area which came in useful later. In just a few short lines, he's the vividly realised character, putting a bit of stick into local meetings. My first sense was of Garner's envy. But that's not the raw emotion behind this whole exercise in remembrance. In the penultimate sentence of the book, Garner casually mentions "Harold's funeral". Having walked through the world he was part of, we really feel his loss.

Wednesday, September 02, 2020

Vortex 139

Vortex magazine 139

The new issue of Big Finish house magazine Vortex includes me yakking about two things I've written that are out next month. 

Lesser Evils is my contribution to the Time Lord Victorious multimedia extravaganza, while The Bookshop at the End of the World is the episode I've written of the eight-episode, eight-author Shadow of the Daleks.

Monday, August 24, 2020

Haunting north

The removals people said they'd be here between 8 and 8.30 this morning but arrived just after 7.30 while I was still drinking tea in bed. So the Dr raced into the shower while I hauled on last night's clothes, and then we were in full boxing mode. They parked their enormous lorry in the middle of the street and none of our neighbours objected. I think that's a mark of how friendly things are here - or how pleased they are to be rid of us.

Tomorrow, we move from our house of nine and a half years, and from London where I've lived since October 1999. We're moving north for a new chapter and new life. The children are already there. So it feels momentous and yet anticlimactic. I'm glad to be going and sad to be gone.

With the house over-run by boxes, the Dr and I went for lunch round the corner at our local - the first time either of us have been in a pub since mid-March. It was strange to use the new app to order drinks and food, all part of the careful, socially distanced provisions to keep us and other punters safe, and yet otherwise pick up as if we'd never been away. And then having caught up with landlord Colin after all these months, he was busy when we had finished, so there was no chance to say goodbye.

The week has been full of notable lasts: my daughter's last day at the nursery that's been a fixture in our lives since my son started there in 2013; the last time mowing the lawn yesterday; the last time past the old landmarks. What with everything going on in lockdown, and some personal stuff too, I'm all a bit emotional at the moment, haunted by things past and things to come.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Time Lord Victorious timeline

cover art for Doctor Who and the Lesser Evils
The official Doctor Who people (praise the company!) have released a timeline of forthcoming multimedia jamboree Time Lord Victorious.

Among the books, comics, audio dramas, escape rooms, figurines and whatever else, there's a whole page devoted to my short story Lesser Evils, including the following sentence from the thing itself:

Death descended on the planet Alexis one bright and crisp, clear morning...

Lesser Evils is performed by Jon Culshaw and features the version of the Master originally played by Anthony Ainley. It's set on a planet I named after the amazing Alexis Deacon, author of Geis.

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?

Saturday, June 06, 2020

Dear Yootha..., by Paul Curran

This is a 2014 biography of the actress Yootha Joyce (1927-80), best known as alpha-cougar Mildred Roper in the 1970s sitcoms Man About the House and spin-off George and Mildred. As a fan, Curran has sieved through a wealth of material and spoken to what feels like anyone who ever knew or worked with Joyce. The result is exhaustive.

I was especially interested in Joyce's early life and career to see if I could overlap anything with that of David Whitaker (1928-80) - writer and story editor of significant bits of 1960s Doctor Who, whose life I'm slowly piecing together. In a 1986 interview, Whitaker's first wife June Barry (who sadly died last month after long illness) claimed that Whitaker had been "almost engaged" to Joyce.

Joyce and Whitaker were born a year apart and both grew up in London - but she was in Hampstead, Clapham and then Croydon, while he was in Barnes and then Kensington. Joyce attended RADA (in the same class as Roger Moore), while Whitaker went into accountancy, where he did amateur dramatics through Sedos. In the early 1950s, Joyce and Whitaker were both in professional repertory with the Harry Hanson Court Players - but for different companies, in different parts of the country. Joyce met Glynn Edwards in the summer of 1955 and married him the following year, so if she and Whitaker were ever together it must have before then - but as Curran says in the book we don't know much about this time in her personal life. (He's also been kind enough to respond to my inquiries and say that nobody he's spoken to about Joyce ever mentioned Whitaker's name.)

Even if this connection remains a mystery, Curran is good on the kind of theatrical world Joyce and Whitaker were both part of at that time. There's the glamour of showbiz:
“Whatever their background, Harry Hanson was known to pressure his actors to always appear glamorous, on and off stage. This filtered through to the other associated Harry Hanson companies.” (p. 28)
There's the pretensions of the material performed twice-nightly for six nights a week:
[From an interview with Dudley Sutton] “But up until [Joan] Littlewood’s appearance, the English theatre was completely middle-class. It was run by the officers, and when an ordinary man or woman come onto the stage, they’d always have to be stupid, comic or both." (p. 34)
And all of this under the condescension of the state:
[From an interview with Glynn Edwards]: “Of course you had the Lord Chamberlain’s rulings, where you were only allowed to say ‘bloody’ twice.” (p. 30)
There's a horrible irony in what follows. Joyce escaped this kind of safe, sentimental theatre for bolder, more experimental stuff that dared to base itself in lived experience and to get political and sexy. Curran underlines the breadth of the work she was doing in the 1960s, from Littlewood's abrasive theatre to episodes of The Avengers and The Saint. Indeed, Mildred Roper is a bold character for her time - sexually assertive, frustrated, real, and immediately connecting to the audience. But the role overshadowed her life, and limited her options in an age of type-casting.

The last section of the book, detailing her sudden decline and death from alcoholism at 53, is hard going not least because there's a sense that it's the success of Mildred that killed the woman who played her. But Curran is shrewd in closing with a poignant last appearance, on Max Bygraves' show Max, screened after her death, where Joyce performed a song that seems to reveal something of what she was feeling in those last days. As Curran says, that made an impression on Kenneth Williams, who was haunted by it ever after:
"Years later, on 9th April 1988, not long before his own death, he added [to his diary] 'can't get Yootha Joyce out of my head - and the time she sang 'For All We Know', there was almost a break in the voice when she got to [the line] tomorrow may never come, but she carried on. She died shortly after [recording it]. A lady who made so many people happy and a lady who never complained." (p. 164)
It's as if, I thought, even after death she could produce the goods: a role that was moving, surprising and real.

(You might like to know that Joyce's co-star Brian Murphy was in a Doctor Who story I wrote, released last year.)

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Doctor Who: Lesser Evils

Big Finish have announced Lesser Evils, a short audio story written by me and performed by Jon Culshaw, which will be released for download in October. The artwork, right, is by the amazing Anthony Lamb.
"The Kotturuh have arrived on the planet Alexis to distribute the gift of the death to its inhabitants. The only person standing in their way is a renegade Time Lord, who has sworn to protect the locals. A Time Lord called the Master..."
The release is paired with Master Thief by Sophie Iles, who had to suffer me as editor, and it's all part of the Time Lord Victorious cross-platform extravaganza wossname.

The Short Trips range gave me my first professional gigs as a writer of fiction, way back in 2002. Here's a list of my previous Short Trips stories. My very first one, The Switching, also features the Master and is being included in the special edition Masterful in January 2021.


Friday, May 29, 2020

Marvels, by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross

After my post on Kingdom Come, a shrewd friend recommended me Alex Ross's earlier work, Marvels, originally published as a four-part mini-series in 1994. Written by Kurt Busiek, Marvels revisits apparently well-known events from Marvel Comics storylines, but from the perspective of an ordinary human. Phil Sheldon is an ambitious news photographer, torn between wanting to be an active participant in history and the debilitating sense that superheroes leave the rest of us impotent.

It's a brilliant idea, beautifully presented with high quality painted artwork on high quality paper. The endnotes show how cleverly the plot weaves between events established in decades-worth of comics - though much of this stuff was new to me, a sporadic comics reader. More telling, I thought, was the way the story acknowledges the contradictions in the history: Human Torch and Sub-Mariner battle as mortal enemies, then are friends, then battle Nazis together, then battle one another again when Sub-Mariner for some reason turns on humanity... I guess readers - fans - familiar with the original stories would know what occasioned these abrupt switches of loyalty and motive, but Sheldon's distance from the heroes means it is here left unexplained.

Sheldon never gets close to his marvels - there's no exclusive access as when Lois Lane interviews Superman, or when Peter Parker tells us what Spider-Man is really like. The closest encounter, when Sheldon is near Spider-man at the time of Gwen Stacy's death, is still at a remove. The result is that for all the years he studies them, the heroes remain out of reach, aloof, and Sheldon can offer little insight or perspective.

That is probably the point. At the human level, Sheldon can intercede, such as when he calls out the hypocrisy of the newspaper editor Jonah Jameson from the Spider-Man stories:


Or there's the moment he turns on the population of New York for their (and his own) fickleness, praying for salvation in times on crisis and then turning on the superheroes the moment danger has passed. What with everything at the moment, the following panel struck a chord:



That feels just as real and innovative for the medium as the extraordinary artwork, and I can understand the impact Marvels had on its original release. Stan Lee, no stranger to hyperbole, speaks in his foreword of it being, "a new plateau in the evolution of illustrated literature" - that last word a claim to respectability, high art, the canon.

Such pretensions are of their time. Marvels is solemn and portentous in that 1990s comics way. The engaging, playful wit of the Marvel movies is seriously lacking. It's an impressive, arresting accomplishment, but feels more DC than Marvel.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Beautiful and Beloved, by Roderic Owen and Tristan de Vere Cole

On twitter a few weeks ago, a friend mentioned that Tristan de Vere Cole, director of 1968 Doctor Who story The Wheel in Space, was not only the son of Mavis Mortimer Wheeler but also co-wrote a biography of her. I sought out the book.

Back in 2011 I was much struck by a sketch of Mavis in the National Museum of Wales by Augustus John - believed to be Tristan's father. At the time I saw the portrait, I was reading Michael Holroyd's exhaustive, 600-page biography of John, and followed that up with Mortimer Wheeler's autobiography Still Digging - though in that Wheeler makes no mention of his second wife at all - though it was over Mavis that John famously challenged Wheeler to a duel; Wheeler consented, suggesting they fight it out with field guns.

Things never got that far, the quarrel was settled, and John was best man to Wheeler when he married Mavis - a newsworthy event given that Mavis was sister-in-law to the Prime Minister (her late husband's sister was Mrs Neville Chamberlain):


Beautiful and Beloved certainly doesn't shy away from that mix of celebrity, sex and wild goings on. Much of the later part of the book details the events of 1954 when Mavis shot her lover, Lord Vivian. A range of sources are used to piece together the night of drinking that led up to the shooting, the shooting itself - as best it can be understood - and the subsequent trial. The authors are in no doubt of Mavis' innocence - yes, she shot Lord Vivian, but they're sure she didn't mean to hurt or kill him. Despite this, the four different versions of events given by Mavis that suggest she wasn't entirely honest about what happened. They seem surprised that she went to prison for it but I didn't think there was much reasonable doubt.

In fact, Mavis' different accounts of herself were nothing new. Born Mabel Winifred Mary Wright on 29 December 1908, Mavis kept reinventing herself, changing her name to Mavis and then Maris, with other names such as Faith and Xara along the way. She was also horrified that news reports of her trial gave her real age. That constant reinvention helped her escape her modest background - she was the daughter of a grocer's assistant, and worked as a scullery maid and waitress before she met and married society prankster Horace de Vere Cole. He was much older than her and had already lived quite a life: the book includes a photograph of a blacked-up Virginia Woolf alongside Horace as part of the notorious Dreadnought hoax in 1910 (when Mavis was aged just one). By the 1960s, Mavis has risen so high through the social ranks that she could accuse her daughter-in-law of being bourgeois - for not being classy enough.

The book shares details of Horace's other pranks, but doesn't tell us exactly which rude word he contrived to spell out in the audience of a theatre by buying tickets for a bald-headed men. That's not from prurience. For one thing, details are sparse for this particular legend: Wikipedia says it was either BOLLOCKS or SHIT but can't name the performance, either. For another, the book isn't shy of f-words and c-words when it quotes the endless, bad poetry Mavis inspired from her various lovers. Or there's this, about John in 1957:
"To Mavis he wrote about an exhibition of drawings he was thinking of having, drawings of what a convention of the day would have had him refer to , in print, as c--s; but such evasions were not for him. He warned her that he would shortly be calling on her to provide the crowning feature of the lot, and he sent love from himself and [his partner] Dodo for good measure.
He wasn't just being shocking, in the time-honoured, intimate manner. John was known to have made a number of studies of private parts. And since Mavis came so easily to hand he was bound to have used as a model, even after a lapse of so many years, the girl who'd won the competition at the old 'Eiffel Tower' [restaurant] for the finest concealed charms." (p. 257)
The book is strikingly candid, and includes one of the nude photographs she sent to John in the 1930s. In fact, she sent such photographs to at least one other of her lovers - and each time the photographs were returned with a horrified response. John wanted to know who had taken the pictures and how she'd got them developed, and the authors add a footnote about practicalities here:
"It wasn't until August 1972 that the Boots chain consented to develop and print snapshots showing full frontal nudity. 'The interpretation of what is obscene has changed in the minds of juries and public opinion,' stated their spokesman, quoted in the Daily Telegraph. 'A normal naked woman is not obscene." (p. 78n)
The obvious candidate for photographer is Bet, the "local and very Cornish woman" who looked after Doll Keiller's cottage at Woodstock St Hilary near Marazion in Cornwall, where Mavis stayed while pregnant with Tristan in December 1934. We know Bet was taken by Mavis on first sight:
"But rushed round to spread the news [of the arrival] to her neighbour, Mrs Allan. 'You wait 'til you see what's in my cottage,' she boasted. 'Six foot of beauty, that's what I've got.'
But even Bet was taken aback when Mrs de Vere Cole opened the door to her next morning, completely naked. 'Look here, Bet, you'll have to get used to this,' said Mavis. 'You'd better begin now.' Even in December, if she could remove her clothes, she would." (p. 72)
She's back in Cornwall with Bet in 1958, though Doll had died three years before:
"They took photographs. On returning to London she [Mavis] prevailed upon a manager to co-operate. She wrote to Bet, 'I told him that some were taken unawares, when I was getting out of my bikini. "Oh," says he, "I'll attend to the matter myself and will get them through by Saturday morning." So--Bet--what fun!" (p. 260)
For all the detail of the letter, the dates and the brazenness, for all the honesty of the book, I find myself wondering what her relationship was with Bet.

Yet given her vivacity, the image of Mavis that really struck is the one from the opening chapter: in the last year of her life, in 1970, venturing out each day into the streets around Sloane Square with her Yorkshire terrier in her shopping basket, to buy tins of cheap food and a half-bottle of either whisky or brandy (or, sometimes both). This daily intake procured, we follow her back to her home in Cadogan Estates, dirty and full of junk as well as a stack of valuable pictures by John, the plumbing not always working, a huge mirror by the bed. It's tragic but honest, and this version of herself is entirely her own creation.