Sunday, January 28, 2024

Garry Halliday and the Ray of Death, by Justin Blake

This is a novelisation of the second Garry Halliday serial, about the adventures of an airline pilot (see my post about the first one, Garry Halliday and the Disappearing Diamonds). The book was published in 1961, based on the six-episode serial broadcast on BBC Television on Saturday tea-times from 26 September to 31 October 1959. 

The first serial was considered enough of a success for two new Garry Halliday serials to be commissioned, apparently at once. This was mentioned in press previews ahead of the the second serial - in the Nottingham Evening Post, 10 September 1959, p. 15 and the Huddersfield Daily Examiner, 18 September 1959, p. 9. But the third serial wasn't broadcast until January 1960.

Why the gap? One issue was the availability of the cast. The Radio Times listing for the first episode of this second run says that star Terence Longdon (who played Garry Halliday) was appearing in The Sound of Murder at London's Aldwych Theatre while Elwyn Brook-Jones (returning as the villainous Voice) was in The Crooked Mile at the Cambridge Theatre. Those commitments probably explain why - again, as per Radio Times - this was a "BBC recording" rather than broadcast live (as with the first serial).

(The stage productions must have given permission for the actors to appear in the TV serial at the same time as their stage commitments; the plugs in Radio Times were probably part of the agreement - I've seen evidence of that with other productions.)

Also returning was Terence Alexander as Halliday's co-pilot Bill Dodds, who narrates the novelisation. He's got a more distinctive, slightly Woosterish voice compared to the first novelisation.

“Hullo! Bill Dodds talking. Are you receiving me?

I expect you are. Loud and clear, as we say in radio communication - I've always had a good carrying voice.

If you've read a book called Garry Halliday and the Disappearing Diamonds, you'll know who I am, and who Garry is, and about Jean Wills, our stewardess, and about the Voice. If you haven't, then you'd better read it, because I'm not going to explain all over again. Life's too short, and anyway there are probably going to be more books after this one, and I can't keep doing it. I expect there'll be many more books as Garry has adventures, and Garry's an adventurous type.” (p. 10, opening Chapter 1)

Jean Wills was back, but with actress Ann Gudrun (better known as Gudrun Ure) replaced by Jennifer Wright - and still not having a great deal to do in the story. The cast was also expanded, with Bill's fiancee Sonia Delamare played by Juno Stevas and Garry's plucky nephew Tim Halliday played by David Langford.

The story opens with Garry, Bill and Jean having set up their own airline, the Halliday Charter Company, and flying a party of holiday-makers out to Paris. Tim sits next to a nervous man whose only luggage is a box containing a jigsaw puzzle. When Tim expresses interest in the puzzle, the man is rude - and when the jigsaw pieces fall out into the cabin, he calls stewardess Jean a "stupid, clumsy bitch" (p. 22), which is a bit of a shock in a TV serial/book aimed at children.

They gather up the jigsaw pieces but Tim, in revenge for the rudeness, keeps one piece. It then turns out that the back of the jigsaw puzzle is written on in invisible ink, and Tim now has a vital part of a message being delivered on behalf of the Voice.

Garry and his friends attempt to make sense of the message and trace how it is delivered, while at the same time the Voice instructs his minions to recover the missing piece of the jigsaw and kill those who get in the way. As in the first serial, this includes an attempt to destroy Garry's plane while in the air.

A preview in Junior Radio Times supplement (included in the Radio Times covering the first episode, via the link above) reveals that this was an ambitious production with location filming abroad:

“There have been film locations in Paris and also down at Ferry Field Airport at Lydd, Kent. Once more Silver City Airways have kindly afforded us every facility, and the Managing Director was recently mistaken for one of our actors playing the part of a high-pressure business executive!

There are more thrilling aerobatic film sequences and a number of specially staged fights, for The Voice’s men are out to get Garry this time, come what may, and their methods change from the use of poison gas to the use of plain fists.” (Junior Radio Times, p. 3)

I'm also struck by how often it veers on the edge of what's suitable for kids: one man compromised by the Voice discusses committing suicide; young Tim Halliday witnesses another man falling to his death; the police seem very relaxed about our heroes shooting a helicopter out of the sky (p. 125). There's fair bit of smoking and drinking, and Bill's views on women - he falls in love with Sonia after she "clonked me on the lug-hole with a kipper" (p. 11). At one point, Garry says of Bill's interest in the secrets hidden on the jigsaws:

“He's a bit kinky about invisible ink.” (p. 37)

At the same time, the plot races along and is full of daft jokes to lighten the mood - Bill gets confused by police sergeant George Eustace having two first names (p. 35), and there's later a police sergeant in Keswick with the surname Love. The local inspector presumably spoke to him with an accent:

“Wait, Love. Wait. Not so far. Instructions must be adhered to, Love, or where would the world be, I ask you.” (p. 121)

The plot hinges on the invention of a new kind of heating appliance.

“It was a cheap way of heating by doing without coal, or gas, or oil; his invention simply extracted heat from the atmosphere, and used that.” (p. 71)

That seems prescient - a kind of air-source heat pump offering green, renewable energy - but the application of the technology is very much of its time. The Voice sees the potential to focus the energy produced into a death ray, a weapon effectively like a cut-price nuclear bomb. 

Such a weapon is of interest to Dr Edmundo (Richard Warner), who our narrator describes as,

“one of these middle-aged South American chaps with mahogany faces and black moustaches, who are always having revolutions in countries with unlikely names.” (p. 38)

He's a stock villain, a racist cliche - and this is not the only time Bill Dodds shares disparaging remarks about foreigners. At one point, he uses a particular word - which I won't repeat here - which is even more shocking than "bitch" to see in a book written for children.

Edmundo employs "thugs" who aren't named in the book but on screen were "Sebastiano" and "Perfidio". The latter, appearing in the last two episodes of the serial, was played by Walter Randall, who later played similar, small villainous roles in Doctor Who. These were the only two episodes of Garry Halliday that Randall appeared in, which means we know someone else who had an uncredited role on the production - and went on to write for the series.

“Douglas [Camfield] was commissioned [to write] for the [Garry Halliday] serial because he had worked on it in 1959 as an AFM where he met actor Walter Randall for the first time, and who would become one of his closest friends, as well as the go-to man for playing middle eastern villains.” (Michael Seely, Directed by Douglas Camfield, p. 34.)

Camfield wrote an episode of the eighth and final Garry Halliday series, which was not a serial but comprised six standalone episodes. But we're getting ahead of ourselves...

The ending of this second story makes use of the fact that no one (except the viewer watching at home) knows what the Voice looks like. Throughout proceedings, he's communicated with his minions remotely, him seeing them on a TV screen, them only hearing his politely couched threats. But the final page of the book promises a rematch, with a closing line that reads to me like the promise of a conclusion to a trilogy:

“Whether it's my choice or the Voice's choice, at some time, in some place, we're going to finish things between us.” (p. 126)

Sadly, I've not yet tracked down a copy of the next novelisation, Garry Halliday and the Kidnapped Five (1962), but can trace something of the plot from listings - and the only surviving episode of Garry Halliday. More on that coming soon. 

Oh, and the cover art for this novelisation is by Ley Kenyon, who as a prisoner of war in Stalag Luft III forged passports and other documents in the lead up to the Great Escape, and then illustrated Paul Brickhill's book.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

Doctor Who Magazine Yearbook 2024

I'm featured briefly in the new 2024 Yearbook from that lot at Doctor Who Magazine. For his piece on last year's Doctor Who books, Richard Unwin asked me a few questions about The Daily Doctor (which I co-wrote with Peter Anghelides) and Whotopia (which Jonathan Morris wrote with assistance from Una McCormack and me). There's even a photo of me, stood outside my old house in London sometimes before lockdown.

Among the myriad treats in the same issue, I was especially taken by Jason Quinn's interview with digital archivist Helen Randle from BBC Library and Curatorial Services, talking about the wealth of old paperwork - memos, sketches and sheet music - that is being unearthed and shared. You can dig into this stuff in The story of Doctor Who from the BBC archives, and click "follow" to get notified of updates. It's even available outside the UK.

Sunday, January 21, 2024

Gallifrey One schedule 2024

Next month, I'll be at the enormous Doctor Who convention Gallifrey One in Los Angeles, where the headline guests include Sir Derek Jacobi, Billie Piper and Alex Kingston.

The schedule for the whole weekend is now online, with an option to see the bits I'm doing. Those are:

Friday, 16 February

11 am - Television Before the TARDIS (Program D)

When Doctor Who began 60 years ago, there was nothing like it on TV — but that doesn’t mean it came from nowhere. Simon Guerrier explores how this cutting-edge science-fiction evolved out of developments in sitcom, soap opera and variety shows, and the adventures of an airline pilot. What, exactly, did the creation of Doctor Who owe Sammy Davis Junior?

4 pm - Autographs (Autograph alley)

7.30 pm - Gadgets and Gizmos Aplenty (Program C)

Doctor Who is nothing without a healthy dose of mechanical gadgetry, gizmos and tools, from the TARDIS itself and its infinitely customizable console, to the various permutations of the Doctor’s trusty sonic screwdriver (which seems to do everything except actually be a screwdriver!), from K-9 to Bessie and the Whomobile, and everything else over the years. We’ll take a look at the most – and least – plausible inventions and gizmos, and work out whether much of this stuff would function in the real world, and how. Moderated by Simon Guerrier. Panelists: Brian Uiga, Erin Amos, Matthew Mitchell.

Saturday, 17 February

2 pm - Worlds That Might Have Been (Program D)

TV and film are full of alternate takes on both history and future. We’ll take a look at the genre, in both science fiction & fantasy TV and film as well as pop culture touchstones (the Marvel and DC universes tend to do it more than any other, it seems!), and ask ourselves why reimagining our past and future is so appealing… and if we can live with the unpredictable consequences, good or bad. Moderated by Craig Miller. Panelists: Simon Guerrier, Barbara Hambly, Robert Napton, Ian Winterton. 

3 pm - The Legacy of Douglas Adams (Program B)

Gone, but never forgotten… the popularity of one of Britain’s greatest satirists continues to inspire us and endures even today. From his early contributions to Doctor Who to the universality of his timeless classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we’ll take a look at Adams’ contributions to the human zeitgeist and why his humor, and his humanity, will live forever. Moderated by Stacey Smith? Panelists: Kevin Jon Davies, James Goss, Simon Guerrier, Gareth Kavanagh.

Sunday, 18 February

10 am - Kaffeeklatsch: Simon Guerrier & Peter Anghelides

12 noon - Autographs (Autograph alley)

5 pm - Closing ceremonies

Saturday, January 20, 2024

BSFA Award longlist

My book David Whitaker in an Exciting Adventure with Television is one of 24 titles longlisted for best non-fiction (long) in this year's British Science Fiction Association's awards. It's a thrill to be noticed, and to be included in such auspicious company - including several mates.

Voting is open to members of the BSFA, who can select up to four works per category. There will then be a shortlist, and winners announced at the Levitation Eastercon event over the weekend of 29 March - 1 April. Details and voting form at the BSFA site.

What with life and lockdown, I've been a bit out of the loop with all things BSFA, though I used to regularly review books for its magazine Vector and attend its events in London. In September 2015, I was the subject of one of those events, interviewed by Professor Edward James, who'd overseen the Masters degree in science-fiction I did 1997-98. 

Here's an on-its-side recording, from that ancient bygone age.

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

Love and Let Die, by John Higgs

I really enjoyed this wide-ranging ramble through Bond, the Beatles and the British psyche. It charts the interweaving histories of the Fabs and 007, not just in their 1960s heydays but up to the present and beyond, exploring disparities and connections, and how our interpretations have changed. In detailing shifts in what Bond and the Beatles mean, it's a history of our changing mores and anxieties. It's a fun and provactive read - a book about connections that really connects.

"That's as bad as listening to the Beatles without earmuffs," quips Sean Connery's Bond in Goldfinger (1964), a moment before someone hits him. Yet less than a decade later, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and ex-Beatles producer George Martin provided the soundtrack for Bond movie Live and Let Die (1973). I've long thought this was evidence of seismic shifts in contemporary culture over a very brief period, but not got much further that that. This is the territory Higgs dives into in his book, with lots of fresh insight and stuff I didn't know, for all that the subjects are so familiar.

How strange to realise that I've been part of these historical changes. I was at university in the mid-1990s when the Beatles enjoyed a resurgence in things like the Anthology TV series, and well remember debates had then about who was best: the Beatles or the Stones. How disquieting to realise, as Higgs says, that we don't make that comparison any more, without ever being aware of a moment when things changed.

Higgs is also of his (and our) time in rejecting ideas that I can remember used to hold considerable sway, such as that John Lennon was the 'best' Beatle, or the band's driving creative force. As the book says, there's growing recognition of what the four Beatles accomplished together rather than as competing individuals. There's something of this, too, in the way Higgs positions Bond to the Beatles. Initially, they're binary opposites, Bond an establishment figure Higgs equates with death, the Beatles working-class rebels all about life and love. By the end, it's as if they synchronise.

This might all sound a bit highfalutin but the insights here are smart and funny. As just one example, here's what Bond's favourite drink reveals about who he is.

"Bond's belief that he knows exactly what the best is appears early in the first novel Casino Royale, when he goes to the bar and orders a dry martini in a deep champagne goblet. Not trusting the barman to know how to make a martini, he gives him specific instructions. 'Three measures of Gordon's, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it's ice cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon-peel.' When the drink arrives, he tells that barman that is is 'Excellent,' then adds, 'But if you can get a vodka made with grain instead of potatoes, you will find it still better.' Most people who have worked in the service industries will recognise a customer like this." (pp. 242-3)

Amazing - Bond as an umarell

I especially like how free-wheeling and broad this all is. There's stuff on shamanic ceremonies from the ancient past, stuff on Freud and the fine art world and Putin. At one point, Higgs talks about the damaging effects of fame in disconnecting a rock star (or anyone else famous) from everyone else.

"Drugs and alcohol appear to mask this disconnect, but in reality, they exaggerate it - cocaine in particular acts as fascism in powdered form. It erodes empathy and keeps the focus on the ever-hardening ego." (p. 294)

It probes the less palatable bits of popular history, grappling head on the complexities of our heroes' objectionable behaviour and views. Our heroes are not always good people, yet by framing this all as a study of how attitudes and culture have shifted, the book avoids making them all villains. 

I nodded along to lots of perceptive stuff, like the thoughts on why Spectre (2016) didn't work precisely because it used screenwriting structures that usually do well in other movies. But I'm not sure Higgs is always right. He argues that a derisive response to a particular CGI sequence in Die Another Day (2002) led to a serious rethink by the Bond producers, which included sacking Pierce Brosnan. I suspect a more pertinent reason was that - as I understand it - Brosnan injured his knee while filming the hovercraft chase and first unit production had to be postponed while he underwent surgery. That would have been expensive and an ongoing risk for an ongoing series of action movies. The fantasy of a Bond who is, over 60 years of movies, always in his prime, must square up against the practicalities of ageing. And that's in line with what Higgs argues elsewhere.

But I don't make this point to criticise. It's more that I found myself responding to the book as if it were a conversation, inviting the reader to engage - and argue. Most potent of all is the final chapter. Having delved so deeply into the past, the author maps out how Bond should develop from here. Yes, absolutely, a younger, millennial Bond who'll appeal to a new generation, and one big on fun and consent, and whose partners don't all die. But also -

[Thankfully, Simon is dragged off-stage.]

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

The Third Policeman, by Flann O'Brien

Atomic Theory is at work in a rural parish of Ireland. This, says Sergeant Pluck of the local police station, explains a spate of missing bicycles - and why one particular bicycle is locked up in a cell. The sergeant spells it out for us thus:

"Everything is composed of small particles of itself and they are flying around in concentric circles and arcs and segments and innumerable other geometrical figures too numerous to mention collectively, never standing still or resting but spinning away and darting hither and thither and back again, all the time on the go. These diminutive gentlemen are called atoms. Do you follow me intelligently?" (p. 86)

Since the narrator of The Third Policeman follows this, the sergeant proceeds with devastating logic:

"'Consecutively and consequentially, ' he continued, 'you can safely infer that you are made of atoms yourself and so is your fob pocket and the tail of your shirt and the instrument you use for taking the leavings out of the crook of your hollow tooth. Do you happen to know what takes place when you strike a bar of iron with a good coal hammer or with a blunt instrument?'"

The answer, he says, is that,

"When the wallop falls, the atoms are bashed away down to the bottom of the bar and compressed and crowded there like eggs under a good clucker. After a while in the course of time they swim around and get back at last to where they were. But if you keep hitting the bar long enough and hard enough they do not get a chance to do this and what happens then?" (p. 87)

Pluck explains that atoms from the iron bar duly end up in the hammer, while atoms from the hammer end up in the iron bar. What's more, the same applies in the matter of bicycles.

"The gross and net result of it is that people who spend most of their natural lives riding iron bicycles over the rocky roadsteads of this parish get their personalities mixed up with the personalities of their bicycle as a result of the interchanging of the atoms of each of them and you would be surprised at the number of people in these parts who nearly are half people and half bicycles." (p. 88)

He proceeds to supply percentages for various named individuals. 

This is one, compelling example of the daftness contained in The Third Policeman, a novel written in 1940 but not published until 1967. I've had this recommended by various people over the years but have only just got to it. The plot, as such, is straightforward. Our narrator tells us in the opening sentence that he was embroiled with someone else in committing a murder; he then recounts what happened but much of the book concerns the rambling, surreal and often quite confused adventures that follow this wicked deed.

Things get very surreal. At one point, the narrator descends to an underground chamber where his every want can be produced from a machine - but not taken out of the chamber. He is sentenced to death by hanging but rescued by a union of one-legged men (more or less). In a sequence that calls back to Pluck's elucidation on Atomic Theory, the narrator develops some kind of relationship with a female bicycle. In all, it's generally funny-peculiar but peppered with funny-ha-ha, and I can see why some readers might find it insufferable. What saves it is that through these comic, quixotic adventures, the reader is haunted by a sense of something more sinister being involved.

Concise but illuminating notes at the end of this edition cite the influence on O'Brien of A Rebours (1884), the French decadent novel that also inspired Oscar Wilde and is seen in the closing moments of Withnail and I - a film with similar rambling, daft adventures in the countryside with something sad and bitter underneath. The notes also say that "de Selby", a philosopher whose daft theories are expounded here, largely in footnotes, returns in person in O'Brien's later novel The Dalkey Archive (1964), and also in work by Robert Anton Wilson (co-author of The Illuminatus Trilogy). The sequence on pp. 103-105 where the narrator is invited to guess the name of man he doesn't know, and we get a long list of odd monickers interspersed with "No", surely influenced the same gag in the Christmas episode of Father Ted. The notes provide evidence of the novel's influence on the TV series Lost. There's even a "De Selby" referenced in an audio play I produced nearly two decades ago, too. Reading this novel has been akin to when my children see the film or TV episode that inspires a well-known meme.

But The Third Policeman - and its final revelations - more than anything reminded me of stuff that can't have influenced it, or been influenced by it in turn. It's difficult to mention these without a risk of spoiling the novel for those who haven't read it, so I'll leave some line breaks.

Yes, I'll leave some line breaks.

Like this.

And this.

And this.

And this.

In particular, I thought of the horror film Dead of Night (1945), the defining structure of which came about by accident during the edit, and also William Golding's novel Pincher Martin (1956) and the brilliant, unsettling short story 'I Used to Live Here Once' by Jean Rhys (also used as the title of her biography). The odd thought is that all these works and their authors (including O'Brien and The Third Policemen) somehow trod the same surreal, sinister paths independently. That implies that this unsettling space is in actual fact common ground.

Tuesday, January 09, 2024

The Man Who Didn't Fly, by Margot Bennett

This is a beguiling mystery by Margot Bennett, first published in 1955 and recently republished in a nice new edition by the British Library, along with several other examples of Bennett's crime fiction. I listened to the audio version read by Seán Barrett and think it might have helped to have had the paperback to hand so I could flip easily back to clues and insight. I think I followed it to the end - but can see why other online reviewers found it a bit perplexing.

Several commentators fix on what they see as a fundamental weakness but which I rather enjoyed - this isn't set up as a murder mystery. Instead, it begins with the loss at sea of a charter plane on its way to Ireland. Records show that a pilot and three passengers were aboard, but four men are known to have tickets. So who exactly is the man who didn't fly and why has he also disappeared?

That wheeze puts this novel in the same bracket as other mystery stories I've loved, such as The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey (1948), or quite a few adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in not being a murder mystery. I can understand why some readers might find it a bit lightweight, insignificant. It's less Cluedo as Guess Who?

The police ask questions of people who encountered these various men in the days leading up to the fateful flight. That then leads to the bulk of the novel: an extended flashback over several days, all set in a wealthy family home. Two of the men seem romantically entangled with daughters of the house. At least one of the men is embroiled in something dodgy involved investments. None of it really seems to help us as readers play along in solving the puzzle.

But I found a lot of this stuff quite fun. It has the feel of a stage play, characters coming and going in the same drawing room, with conflicts and revelations coming thick and fast. Then two outsiders enter proceedings - a young burglar and an older man from Australia with a grudge. It began to look as if the three passengers on the plane might be drawn from a larger pool than the original four suspects.

(I also began to wonder if the continued reference to "the man" who didn't fly was setting up a twist where the missing person would turn out to be a woman who has switched places with one of the four.)

At last we return to the present to sift through everything we've had presented. The police methodically, logically, work through the evidence and - taking everything they've been told at face value - establish the identify of the fourth man. Then comes the brilliant twist that this does involve a murder mystery, the killing one aspect of wider criminal activity that there have been clues to all along.

But it's odd that this whole thing hinges on tragic chance - the plane crash being a random accident is another thing some readers criticise. The mild-mannered inquiry into who was involved has less dramatic urgency than a regular murder mystery. I liked it because it was something a bit different from the norm but can see why it would disappoint if you have a firmer sense of what mystery novels should be.

I've some more work by Bennett to get through, engaged in my own mild-mannered inquiry into what exactly she might have pitched in 1964 to Doctor Who. Martin Edwards' introduction to this novel has been helpful there - and his mention of Margot Bennett in Life of Crime sparked this thought in the first place. I've the first inklings of an idea about what she and story editor David Whitaker might have discussed but, like the dour police inspector in this novel, will hold off until I've gathered all the evidence.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

Doctor Who Magazine #599

The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine is out today, with a deep dive by Benjamin Cook into the shooting of the regenerations sequence seen in The Giggle last year, and a new comic strip in which the TARDIS arrives in space Manchester. There's an interview with Millie Gibson who plays new companion Ruby Sunday, and chats with the teams behind the new TARDIS and sonic screwdriver.

On pages 42 and 43, there's my interview with post-production producer Ceres Doyle (who has worked on Doctor Who since 2004) and post-production supervisor Liv Duffin, who I spoke to in October.

There's also a nice review by Jamie Lenman of Whotopia, the book I worked on with Jonathan Morris and Una McCormack.