TV review: The Crown. Season 5. Episode 3: Mou Mou

It’s that man again: Di (Elizabeth Debicki) meets Mohamed Al-Fayed (Salim Dau)

One of the fun things about The Crown is that you never know when or where each episode is going to start from. You would sort of expect each show is going to start with a caption reading ‘Buckingham Palace, 1991’ or something predictable like that. But, in practice, it’s just as likely to read, ‘Berlin, 1940,’ ‘Amsterdam, 1664,’ or ‘The Planet Osios IV, Alpha Centauri, 8162.’ (I’m exaggerating a little here. Very few episodes of The Crown are actually set in Deep Space).

This time, we open in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1946. Where is this heading? Alex Jennings makes a welcome return cameo appearance as a visiting middle-aged Duke of Windsor before we realise this is The Crown’s introduction to the crazy world of the Al-Fayed family. We witness the birth of Dodi and as the years roll by, we witness his over-sexed father Mohamed’s attempts to establish himself in British society and the resistance he encounters due to a combination of genuine doubts about his character and the usual snobbery and racism. We see him (well played by Salim Dau) buying Harrods and his and Dodi’s (Khalid Abdalla) often overlooked successes within the British film industry. According to this, they actually watched the filming of the famous opening of Chariots of Fire, a sequence once memorably described by Roddy Doyle as “a bunch of tossers running across a beach.”

We also learn of Mohamed’s apparent obsession with the by then deceased ex-King Edward VIII. He employs Sydney Johnson (Jude Akuwudike) a former black valet to the onetime monarch and see him buy Edward and Wallis’s former home. All true enough apparently. In real life, Mohamed Al-Fayed is now 93. I wonder what he makes of all this?

Anyway, later he attempts to meet the Queen (Imelda Staunton) at a racecourse but is charmed by Princess Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) instead. He likes to be called “Mou Mou.” Dodi meets her briefly for the first time too although it’s not quite the thunderbolt moment we might have expected. Dodi says little to her and Di doesn’t really seem to notice him. This is the only time they meet during this series of The Crown.

Book review: The Mother of all Degrassi

Do you know Linda Schuyler? No? Fair enough. Neither did I.
We’ll try again: do you remember The Kids From Degrassi Street and Degrassi Junior High? As a child of the 1980s, I dimly remember seeing both of these series on British TV. Just about. There was a lollypop man who was shouted at? A voiceover in which a father gradually revealed to his son that his mother would never return from hospital? An East European girl trying to find her feet in the USA? The theme music was quite melancholy. I remember the sequel, Degrassi Junior High being livelier and punchier. I dimly remember learning the phrase “stereotyping” after hearing it used on one episode and a storyline about a snooty girl who forced her younger brother to keep their relationship secret from everyone else in the school. Even the teachers didn’t know they were related, which seemed odd.
But that’s about all I remember. It was a long time ago.
The show was a very big deal in its native Canada (and elsewhere) and endured in various forms (Degrassi: The New Generation etc) long into the 21st century. The film director Kevin Smith was a big fan. And, no, I’m not going to explain who he is. He’s properly famous. Look him up!
Anyway, Linda Schuyler, a former teacher created and oversaw the whole Degrassi Empire. She has lived an interesting life – a life of car accidents, marriages which have failed, marriages which have been successful. Not to mention the heady world of Canadian TV politics.
The book would benefit from being trimmed a bit. There are a few too many flashbacks. But overall, it’s a good story and Linda Schuyler knows how to tell it.

Available: now. Published by ECW Press.

TV review: The Crown. Season 5. Episode 2: The System

Di another day: The Princess (Elizabeth Debicki) spills the beans.

Bad news for fans of Imelda Staunton’s Queen Elizabeth II: she’s barely in this episode at all, appearing only fairly briefly at the start and again towards the end. She is, for the most part, Queen Unseen. Queen but not heard.

Never mind: instead, we get lots about Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) and old Phillip (Jonathan Pryce). Diana is hanging out a lot with her fried, Dr. James Colhurst (Oliver Chris) who acts as an intermediary between her and author, Andrew Morton (Andrew Steele) as she provides first hand material for his sensational warts-and-all biography of her, Diana: Her True Story.

The Duke of Edinburgh, meanwhile, is indulging his love of carriage-riding with family friend, Lady Penny Knatchbull (Truman Show actress, Natascha McElhone). Yes, you heard me: carriage riding. Apparently, this isn’t just something people in 1820 used to do, but a genuine hobby which rich people like to do today: restoring and then riding about in old carriages. Each to their own, I suppose.

But hang on a mo! Lady Penny is much younger than the old Duke and very attractive. Does the Queen not mind about this? Well, fear not, it all seems to be perfectly innocent. The two do achieve a genuine sense of intimacy, but not in a rude way. In a sudden burst of story, Penny does reveal to Philip what Di’s been up to. Philip is annoyed and arranges to meet with Diana and gives her a friendly warning. Don’t rock the boat, he says. And, for once, he doesn’t mean the Royal Yacht, Britannia.

But it’s too late to cancel the book now and anyway Diana doesn’t want to. This seems to mark the point where Diana goes rogue.

TV review: The Crown. Season 5. Episode 1: Queen Victoria Syndrome

Live and let Di: The Prince and Princess (Dominic West and Elizabeth Debicki) go on fighting the Cold War.

It’s 1991 and the political situation is very, very different from how it is today, in November 2022.

Hard as it is to imagine now but back in 1991, Britain had been under the same Conservative government for twelve long years. I know, right? With the economy slipping into economic recession, the Tories had forced out their unpopular woman leader and replaced her with the man who until recently had been Chancellor of the Exchequer. The new Prime Minister was the youngest one so far of the entire century. So, as you can see: nothing like the current state of affairs at all.

But never mind all that, where’s the Queen?

Well, the series opens with a supposed bit of newsreel footage showing the Queen attending a ceremony marking the commissioning of the Royal Yacht Britannia back in 1957. Older readers will remember that for the first decade of her reign, the young Queen was played by the actress Claire Foy and this is the case here. The flashback ends with Foy’s Queen staring, horrified into the middle distance as if she has foreseen the images which appear in the next scene where she has transformed into Imelda Staunton. We first see Staunton’s monarch enduring the banal necessities of a routine medical examination. We are now in the 1990s and like Staunton herself, the sovereign is now supposed to be in her mid-sixties.

Of course, we already know the real problem isn’t with the Queen herself (spoiler alert: she lives for another 31 years) but with her children, three of whom are about to divorce, almost simultaneously. A frisky Princess Anne (Claudia Harrison) is already eyeing up the local talent while Charles (Dominic West) is doing his best to preserve the public face of his desperately unhappy marriage to the much-loved Princess Diana. Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki does a great job of replacing the also excellent Emma Corrin in this challenging role, often displaying a remarkable physical resemblance to the late Princess of Wales. But by this point, the marriage is clearly already doomed, wrecked by Charles’s affair with Camilla and by the fact they obviously have absolutely nothing in common.

The onetime Trainspotting actor, Jonny Lee Miller plays Britain’s Prime Minister, John Major. Major mostly sits quietly while lots of people talk at him in this episode. It is not really made clear whether this is because he is supposed to be naturally inscrutable or because he is keeping quiet because he senses he is out of his depth. Prince Charles, in this, seems to be plotting to encourage the Queen to abdicate and waffles vaguely and attempting to draw vague parallels with the decision to replace the ageing sixty-something Thatcher with the male forty-something Major. Princess Margaret (Lesley Manville) typically attempts to embarrass Major socially. Diana and the Queen are more polite to him. Sadly, there is no repeat of the scene in the Chris Morris comedy, The Day Today, in which the Queen and Major have a full-blown fight during their weekly audience together.

TV review: The Crown. Series 5: Preview

1991…

The story so far: Against all the odds, ordinary London girl and granddaughter of King George V, Elizabeth Windsor has risen to become Her Royal Highness, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Having seen off many perils during her first forty years on the throne including her wayward, drunken sister, Margaret (Vanessa Kirby/Helena Bonham Carter/Lesley Manville), unstable palace intruder, Michael Fagan (Tom Brooke) and non-U-turning, ex-Europhile, Iron Lady, Great She Elephant, Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), she now faces her greatest enemy of all: HER OWN CHILDREN. Can the Queen resolve the mystery of the Annus Horribilis? Can this series avoid overlapping with the storyline of the film, The Queen, also written by Peter Morgan nearly twenty years ago? And can the Queen work out why after nearly thirty years as Olivia Colman, she has now suddenly turned into Imelda Staunton? For the answers, read on…

Drama Queen: Actress Imelda Staunton takes over the reign/reins…

Book review: The Wars of the Roses, by Martin J. Dougherty

This book is advertised as being based on “the struggle which inspired Game of Thrones.” This is sort of true, but also very misleading. You certainly won’t find any dragons or ‘white walkers’ in this account. On the plus side, the ending is arguably rather more satisfactory.
The Wars of the Roses are the name given to the dynastic struggles which engulfed England in the second half of the 15th century. When studying the wars, it is important to remember two things:
a) the wars were really not about flowers at all. The role played by botany in the conflict has been greatly overstated.
b) they were essentially a struggle between different armies led by different men called either Henry, Richard or Edward, who were all vaguely related to each other.
1399: Henry Bollngbroke overthrows and kills Richard II and becomes Henry IV, the first king of the House of Lannister, sorry, I mean, Lancaster. Nobody minds much at the time: Richard was a tyrant. But this leads to problems fifty years later…
1450s: By now Henry IV’s grandson, Henry VI is king. Although a good man, he is weak and sometime insane and has effectively lost the Hundred Years’ War to France. He has also fallen out with his old ally, Richard of York who can claim royal descent from the earlier Richard II. Richard rises against Henry. The wars begin!
146os: Richard of York gave battle in vain. He is killed at the Battle of Stoke in 1460. But his son, Edward overthrows Henry VI a few months later. Edward IV becomes the first king of the House of Stark. I mean, York!
1470s: Edward annoys his old ally, the Earl of Warwick (actual name: Richard) known as ‘the Kingmaker’ who teams up with the old Lancastrian bunch to reinstate the now completely mad Henry VI. This doesn’t last long: Edward IV reclaims the throne. Warwick dies in battle. Henry VI is discretely killed off.
1480s: Edward IV dies suddenly. His son, Edward V is now king but is still a boy. Edward IV’s brother places Edward V and his brother (another Richard!) under ‘protection’. The two young ”princes in the tower’ are never seen again. Gloucester becomes Richard III and depending on your view was either good or evil. Two years’ later, Lancastrian exile, Henry Tudor defeats Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. Richard is killed and ends up being dug up in a 21st century Leicester car park. Henry is married to Edward IV’s daughter, Elizabeth of York theoretically uniting the warring Houses of York and Lancaster. The wars, in practice, continue for a little while longer but as far as 1485 goes, Henry VII is enshrined as the first Tudor king.

Published by: Amber. Available: now.

Book review: Shrines of Gaiety, by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is a good writer. She tends to write two types of novel: powerful historical ones depicting 20th century life like Behind The Scenes at the Museum or Life After Life and griping crime thrillers featuring her hero, Jackson Brodie. Her new book is pretty much a combination of the two: a crime drama in a period setting.
Basically, it focuses heavily on the ups and downs of a fictional major crime family in a world still reeling from the devastating impact of the Great War in the 1920s. It’s a bit like the recent TV drama, Peaky Blinders but much lighter and funnier than that was. It also alternates between York and London.
Essentially, it’s an enjoyable read which satisfy Kate Atkinson’s legions of fans as well as anyone new to her work.

Available: now. Published by: Doubleday.

Book review: The Unfolding, by A.M. Homes

First, a quick word of warning: one of the main characters in this novel is referred to only as “the Big Guy” throughout. This frankly takes quite a bit of getting used to, but somehow it is possible. And it’s well worth doing so, for if you can, at the end of the day, this is another fine novel from one of the best American authors around.
It’s November 2008 and Barack Obama has just soundly beaten Senator John McCain in the race to the White House. The Big Guy (you see? I know!) is very unhappy about this. He is a rich, ageing conservative and soon begins consulting some of his friends who have similar inclinations as to the best possible response to these events. But what exactly do they intend to do?
As others have noticed, this is definitely quite a political book. Homes’ last novel, May We Be Forgiven featured a character who was obsessed with Richard Nixon a lot and this one includes cameo appearances from the defeated McCain as well as from presidents Bush (the second one) and Obama. I enjoyed the political side of the book, but rest assured, there’s lots of other good stuff here too as the Big Guy finds time to reassess his relationships with Charlotte, his troubled, alcoholic wife and with their intelligent, thoughtful daughter, Megan.

Book review: English Rebels and Revolutionaries

For as long as England has existed, there have always been a brave and stubborn minority who have been prepared to stand up and challenge the existing order in the hope of changing people’s lives for the better. That, in essence, is what this collection of essays is all about. Where would we be now if the barons had not risen against King John, leading to Magna Carta? Or without Wat Tyler and the peasants who revolted against the tyranny of Richard II in the 14th century? Or without the Civil War which briefly unseated the English monarchy and beheaded King Charles I in 1649? In truth, some of these English rebels and revolutionaries were more effective than others. Wat Tyler’s rebellion, for example, appeared to achieve very little at all at the time, but it did at least show that the common people could stand up and rise up against the King. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Richard II was overthrown forever not long afterwards. But, we should always remember, history is not about things staying the same. It is all about change. And every one of the rebels and revolutionaries described in this book, played some part in transforming England from a medieval feudal tyranny into the democratic constitutional monarchy of today.

Book review: No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy

Many readers will doubtless relate to Mark Hodkinson’s memoir of growing up in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.
Today, he is a  journalist, publisher and author. He has always loved books and has a vast collection. But as a child his voracious book-reading habit was treated with suspicion by his working-class parents. His parents worried that there was something unwholesome or antisocial about always “having your nose in a book.” His mother even treated his teenaged visit to an optician’s to get a pair of glasses with outright scepticism, even though this development probably had nothing to do with his reading habit anyway.
At home, his family owned just one book, Folklore, Myths and Legends of Britain, which they kept on top of a wardrobe. Oddly, although I grew up in a very different household in the 1980s and 90s, in a family which was no more interested in the occult than Hodkinson’s was, my family owned this physically striking tome too (along with many other books).
This is more than a book about books. It is a memoir and amongst other things provides many disturbing insights into the mental health of Hodkinson’s grandfather.
There are, indeed, many, many books in the world already, perhaps too many. Despite this, No One Round Here Reads Tolstoy, is undeniably a worthy addition to their number.

Book review: The Art of Carlos Ezquerra

This year, 2022, marks the 45th anniversary of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000AD. Excellent news as this, one sad, though inevitable consequence of the comic’s longevity, has simply been that we’ many of its talented creators have inevitably started to die off. Massimo Belardinelli, Steve Dillon, Brett Ewins, Ron Smith and Garry Leach have all been amongst the talented artists to depart in recent years. Another, Garry Leach, died in March 2022.
In 2018, we lost Carlos Ezquerra., at the age of seventy. This book is a fitting monument to the prolific Spanish comic artist’s work.

It’s easy to forget that Ezquerra, who drew lots of very violent images in his time, started off working for girls’ comics like Mirabelle and Valentine. I was interested to see the examples from this period included here, although it’s clear ‘King Carlos’ was yet to establish his own distinctive style yet at that point.
Ezquerra really came of age on the war comic, Battle in the 1970s. On strips like Rat Pack and Major Eazy we can see the Ezquerra we know and love emerging for the first time. Now living in Britain, Ezquerra was now collaborating with writers like John Wagner. He also worked on the controversial, Action, a comic famously so violent that according to legend it was banned (it actually wasn’t).


Carlos Ezquerra will be probably always be most famous for creating two legendary sci-fi stories: Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog. The creation of Dredd has always been overshadowed by controversy. Having played a major role in defining the visual look of both Dredd himself (Ezquerra drew inspiration from his own memories of Franco’s Spain) and Mega City One, Ezquerra was enraged when the first ever Judge Dredd story was published in 2000AD Prog 2 in 1977, illustrated by a different artist, the then teenaged Mike McMahon. Ezquerra didn’t begrudge McMahon (himself a significant talent) at all but was furious not to get to produce the futuristic lawman’s debut. The reasons why this happened are still disputed.
Such was his anger, Ezquerra refused to draw Dredd for several years. In the meantime, he did other work for 2000AD notably the comic’s own adaptation of Harry Harrison’s light-hearted Stainless Steal Rat and illustrated Gerry Finley Day’s war/horror crossover, Fiends of the Eastern Front.
He also created the mutant bounty hunter, Johnny Alpha for the John Wagner story, Strontium Dog in 1978. Still annoyed about the Dredd snub, Ezquerra had created the best story in 2000AD’s short-lived sister comic, Star Lord. Star Lord merged into 2000AD anyway a few months later. Ezquerra drew pages and pages of Strontium Dog for 2000AD during the next decade. Characters from the strip illustrate the cover of this volume.


Ezquerra refused to kill Alpha off, however, and refused to work on the character’s epic story, The Final Solution which was illustrated by Simon Harrison and Colin MacNeil instead.
His instincts proved sound. 2000AD soon realised killing Alpha off had been a dreadful mistake. Ezquerra illustrated the revived Strontium Dog in the 21st century.
Ezquerra had, in the meantime, finally made his Judge Dredd debut in spectacular style. The Dredd mega-epic, The Apocalypse War ran in 2000AD for the first six months of 1982. Produced almost exactly midway through Ezqerra”s life, it is perhaps his greatest achievement.
Ezquerra continued to provide art for both Dredd and Strontium Dog until his final days. The man himself may be gone but the legend of ‘King Carlos’ will never be forgotten.

The Art of Carlos Ezquerra. Published by: Rebellion. Available: now.

Book review: Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain

A history book written backwards?

The idea might sound bizarre, but in fact, in the case of Hannah Rose Woods’ excellent new book, it makes perfect sense. For this is a history of nostalgia itself. As Woods gradually takes us back from the 2020s to the Tudor era, it makes so much sense that a chapter covering the years 1914 to 1945 should follow the one focusing on the period spanning 1945 to 1979, that it soon begins to seem normal.

Indeed, there never seems to have been a time when Britain wasn’t taking a fond look back over its shoulder to savour the apparent security and certainties of the recent past. Many today might mourn the passing of the immediate post-war decades. But Woods is good at myth-busting and points out things were rarely as simple as they seem. From the perspective of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Britain seemed, on the one hand, to be drifting into seemingly irreversible decline. We had lost our empire, been humiliated over Suez and as the 1960s moved into the 1970s, seemed to be perpetually lurching from one national crisis to another.

This is all true enough. But at the same time as Harold Macmillan pointed out, “most of our people have never had it so good.” During his premiership and for nearly twenty years after it, lots of people had more money and free time than ever, acquiring cars, living in their own homes and going on foreign holidays for the first time.  The year 1977 is often seen as marking something of a national low point, coming so soon after the 1976 IMF Crisis. But surveys from that year indicate Britons were then amongst the happiest peoples in the world. As the Canadian philosopher, Joni Michell had argued a few years earlier, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

There is more. Contrary to popular myth, lots of people were pleased to be moved out of their slums, most people who went to the New Towns didn’t regret it (even in Stevenage) and some people were never happier during their entire lives than when the Nazis were bombing them during the Second World War (no joke!)

In short, this is an enjoyable and well-written book, packed with insights. You’ll be sure to remember it fondly, once it’s all over.

Book review: Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, by Hannah Rose Woods. Published by: W.H Allen. Available: now.

Embattled Johnson denies “everything”

Troubled Tory Prime Minister, Boris Johnson has denied that his leadership had been fatally wounded by last night’s confidence vote. In fact, he appeared to deny that such a vote had even taken place. “If there was a large group of MPs gathering in the Commons on that particular date, I was certainly unaware of it,” he stated, in comments made this morning. He promised to launch an immediate inquiry to establish both whether such a vote occurred and whether he himself had been there or not.

Mr. Johnson went on to deny hearing crowds booing him on his arrival at both the Platinum Jubilee Service on Friday or at the special Platinum Jubilee Concert held on Saturday evening. “I am not aware of either of these events or this so-called “jubilee” which everyone in the media seems so obsessed with,” he argued. “Honestly, the suggestion that most people care whether or not we have a Queen or whether I once saw a birthday cake while walking past a shop window at a serious time like this is just plain balderdash.” He added: “The media seem to be convinced everyone is partying and celebrating all the time. It simply isn’t true. In the real world, most ordinary people are too busy struggling with the cost of living crisis and other problems which my government created.”

Elsewhere, Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries also attacked the media claiming recent footage of the Queen sharing tea with Paddington Bear had been faked using “special effects”.

Triffids, Cuckoos and Chocky: John Wyndham on screen…

As yet another version of his 1957 classic, The Midwich Cuckoos arrives on Sky Max starring Keeley Hawes and Max Beesley, Chris Hallam takes a look at past attempts to adapt the work of science fiction author, John Wyndham (1903-69) to the screen…

ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN INFINITY MAGAZINE IN 2019

In the land of the blind…

It is one of the most dramatic openings to any novel of the 20th century.

We join the narrator, Bill Masen as he wakes up one morning in hospital following a routine eye operation. The operation has been a success, but soon after removing his protective bandages, Masen realises that something has gone horribly, terribly wrong. It quickly becomes clear that the staff and patients of the hospital have all, aside from him, been struck suddenly and simultaneously blind. Worse, as he slowly ventures outside, he comes to recognise an even more horrifying truth: London, Britain and indeed, it emerges, the entire planet has been similarly afflicted. The eyesight of almost the entire human race has been irreparably damaged, failing largely simultaneously only hours after witnessing a sudden spectacular unexpected astronomical display in the sky, the night before. Only a few exceptions, such as Bill whose eyes were safely bandaged (much to his frustration) during the display, are left with their eyesight intact. Humanity has been reduced to a grim, shuffling, sightless mass by the catastrophe. It soon becomes clear: mankind is doomed. Particularly, as a lethal man-made race of giant, walking plants lies in wait, ready to take its place as the dominant species on the Earth.

So, begins John Wyndham’s classic 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids. The novel was a huge success both at the time and in the years since, for example, making it onto the BBC’s Big Read list of the nation’s most popular novels more than fifty years later.

Wyndham’s opening directly inspired novelist Alex Garland when he penned the screenplay to Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 2002 film, 28 Days Later. The film’s early scenes are reminiscent of the earlier book with coma victim Jim (Cillian Murphy) waking up to discover an eerily abandoned city of London (Director Boyle created the “empty city” effect simply by filming early in the morning. His main problem was preventing wayward nightclubbers from wandering into shot). In 2010, Frank Darabont deployed similar tactics as wounded police officer, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) discovers a similar catastrophe after a hospital stay in the first episode of the long-running US TV series, The Waking Dead. The series was itself based on an earlier graphic novel.

Both of these 21st century stories dealt with a world overrun by zombies. In Wyndham’s book, the planet is stalked by a different foe, the Triffids: giant man-made, walking killer plants. Already in existence before the disaster having been conceived as a botched Cold War attempt to resolve post-war food shortages, the new world order provides the Triffids with the perfect opportunity to have their day in the sun. They are equipped with lethal stings which they now deploy to good effect on the suddenly very vulnerable, newly blind human population. Our hero, Bill, a biologist, was indeed temporarily blinded by just such a sting while working on a Triffid farm, giving him the eye-injury, which ironically ultimately spared him suffering a worse fate, alongside nearly everyone else.

Later it is strongly suggested the surprise “meteor shower” which blinded the world may in fact have been the result of a Cold War germ warfare experiment released by satellite (satellites still being a futuristic notion in 1951). The light display may have been unleashed accidentally by either side with calamitous results. With the blind majority either starving or being gradually picked off by Triffifds, Bill and the few other remaining sighted are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile, Triffid-filled world.

Wyndham’s world

Success came relatively late in life for John Benyon Harris.

The son of a barrister, he had been born in 1903 and had enjoyed a variety of careers including farming, law, advertising and the civil service. He had also been involved in the Normandy invasion in 1944. But despite this, it’s hard not to feel he was kept afloat by his family’s money, with his novelist brother seen as more of a success than he was himself.

Arthur C. Clarke felt Wyndham’s  social background was something of a flaw, robbing him of the financial desperation which for many writers helps nurture inspiration.

“John was a very nice guy,” the 2001 author later wrote. “but unfortunately suffered from an almost fatal defect for a fiction writer: he had a private income. If he hadn’t, I’m sure he’d have written much more.”

This is probably unfair. Wyndham had numerous short stories and a few books published throughout his life from the 1920s onwards, some with titles as intriguing as Jizzle (1949), Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus (1951), Spheres Of Hell (1933 ) and (ahem) The Third Vibrator (1933).

But it was only in his late forties writing as John Wyndham for the first time that he achieved his first major success, after deciding to fuse two story ideas into one. One story was about a world suddenly struck blind. The other was about a race of killer plants.

The release of The Day of the Triffids marked the beginning of a golden period for Wyndham.

The year 1953 saw the release of The Kraken Wakes, which saw the world again imperilled, this time by an alien force which establishes itself under the sea, having dropped into the ocean from space. This time humanity is threatened by the aliens’ decision to use the Earth’s environment against it, flooding the planet by melting the polar ice caps. The book had a slightly different ending in the US where it was called Out of the Deeps.

The late Brian Aldiss described Wyndham’s works as “cosy catastrophes”. In reality, there is little cosy about any of them. If anything, The Kraken Wakes has grown more resonant in the decades since as humanity has become aware of the growing threat to our way of life by the very real threat of man-made global warming.

Wyndham moved dramatically forward in time for The Chrysalids (1955) which saw a society in thrall to Christian fundamentalism, following what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust centuries before. This event has come to be known as the Tribulation. Conventional wisdom has it that God is likely to unleash further retribution on the populace, unless the occasional mutations occur within some people are not exposed and driven out. In reality, of course, the mutations are the consequence of the nuclear war, rather than the cause of it. When a group of children start developing such mutations – notably telepathic powers – they soon find themselves in a struggle for their lives.

Psychic children also play a vital role in Wyndham’s next novel, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) in which a race of all powerful hyper-intelligent children come to dominate a small, ordinary mid-20th century English village. The circumstances around the children’s conception are strange indeed. Every woman in Midwich simultaneously falling pregnant following a bizarre 24 hour incident when the entire village (and, indeed, anyone who tried to enter it) fell unconscious). The resulting children, all of whom seem remarkably similar and Aryan-looking, soon show signs of malevolent behaviour, further fuelling suspicions that they are the product of some alien breeding experiment in which the women of Midwich were deployed unwittingly as vessels.

The Outward Urge (1959) marked something of a departure for Wyndham, not least because according to the cover, it was produced with another author, Lucas Parkes. In truth, Parkes was just another name for John Wyndham himself: he had already used this pseudonym in the past. The use of the name here does reflect a change of course for Wyndham, in this book which details the “history” of the world between 1994 and 2194. The story is told from the perspective of the Troon family who witness the continued stand-off between the west and the Soviet union culminating in nuclear war in the mid-21st century, resulting in a new world order dominated by the new superpowers, Australia and Brazil. In reality, of course, the USSR collapsed peacefully in 1991, an event Wyndham would have done very well to predict even if he had written the book in 1984, let alone 1959. The book owes something to H.G Wells’ The Shape of Things To Come (1933). Wyndham was a big admirer of the earlier science fiction pioneer.

Wyndham grew less prolific in his final years. Trouble With Lichen (1960), though not especially strong story-wise raises many interesting questions about the implications of a discovery which stands to substantially increase the duration of the natural human life-span.

Chocky (1968), meanwhile, saw a family jeopardised over concerns that what initially appeared to be their teenaged son’s imaginary friend is in fact a hyper-intelligent alien life force which is communicating with him telepathically. The books Web and Plan for Chaos (the first written around the time of The Day of the Triffids), were both published posthumously.

By the time of his death in 1969, John Wyndham had grown used to seeing his works adapted for TV, radio and cinema. This process has continued, with mixed results. The Day of the Triffids has spawned one not especially fateful film, a surprisingly compelling early 1980s BBC series and a further not very distinguished mini-series, featuring Eddie Izzard, a decade ago. The Midwich Cuckoos, meanwhile, became the monochrome cinema classic, Village of the Damned. In the 1990s, the film received the distinction of a parody on The Simpsons. The same decade also witnessed a remake by Halloween director, John Carpenter. A generation of schoolchildren were also collectively traumatised when three series of the deeply disturbing Chocky appeared on Children’s ITV in the mid-eighties.

More is sure to come. Fifty years after his death, John Wyndham’s legacy extends far beyond the actual books and short stories he left behind. His overall influence on others is impossible to measure. He is a giant of 20th century British science fiction.

World of Wyndham: A Timeline

Intro: His life and times, on page and screen…

1903: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris is born in Dorridge, Warwickshire

1928-1936: Writing either as John Benyon or John Harris, Wyndham pens numerous detective and sci-fi stories

1951: The Day of the Triffids is published to huge success. The name “John Wyndham” is used for the first time

1953: The Kraken Wakes, a similarly near-apocalyptic tale follows

1955: The Chrysalids

1956: The Seeds of Time, a short story collection by Wyndham appears

1957: The Midwich Cuckoos is published

1959: The Outward Urge is published

1960: Midwich Cuckoos is filmed as Village of the Damned by Wolf Rilla starring George Sanders and Barbara Shelley

The Trouble With Lichen published

1961: Another short story collection, Consider Her Ways and Other Stories is released

1963: Film version of Day of the Triffids. It is directed by Steve Sekely and stars Howard Keel

Children of the Damned, a film sequel to Village of the Damned is released directed by Anton M. Leader, starring Ian Hendry

1968: Chocky is released this year

1969: Wyndham dies in Petersfield, Hampshire. He is 65

1981: UK TV version of Day of the Triffids starring John Duttine

1984: TV version of Chocky. Followed by Chocky’s Children (1985) and Chocky’s Challenge (1986)

1995: John Carpenter remakes Village of the Damned. It stars Christopher Reeves, Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill

2009: Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and Eddie Izzard features in a new Day of the Triffids TV series

Book review: Radical Victorians, by James Hobson

The Victorian era is sometimes remembered as a stuffy, prudish period when radical ideas were either not proposed or not listened to. This is not entirely true. Here, author James Hobson details the lives of nineteen ground-breaking Victorians who boldly blazed a trail for various ideas and positions, which in most cases, were not widely adopted until much later, if at all.
Of the nineteen figures included not one, except perhaps Labour Party founder, James Keir Hardie is well-known today. Hobson’s interest is not in those who like Charles Darwin, saw their radical theories widely absorbed into mainstream society during their lifetimes. The book is more interested in the outliers: the often lonely figures who stuck to their guns in the face of almost universal indifference, hostility and sometimes hatred.
None of the nineteen figures lived to see their arguments become popular. Some of their outlandish notions, such as gender equality, freedom of the press and the notion of cremating the dead, have become widely accepted since. Others, such as socialism, vegetarianism and republicanism remain significant minority opinions, which are at least tolerated today. Others, such as spiritualism and eugenics have largely fallen out of favour.
Th figures included are a mixed bunch. For example, whatever good points they may have had, the vegetarian, Anna Kingsford,, socialist Henry Hyndman and scientist, Francis Galton were all undeniably very racist by modern standards. And while the author keeps an open mind, it is difficult to read the chapter about spiritualist, Florence Cook, without concluding she was some sort of fraud. Many of these figures were eccentric. Some were deeply flawed. All were very unusual.

But some undeniably great things and did much to improve the lives of large numbers of people. The 19th century temperance movement has developed a reputation for hypocrisy and cant. In the chapter on Ann Jane Carlile, Hobson reminds us that this wasn’t always the case and was, at any rate, tackling an extremely serious alcohol problem which was destroying thousands of lives. Josephine Butler, likewise, did invaluable work in combatting the sexual double standard enforced by the odious Contagious Diseases Act. Even Francis Galton, today notorious as ‘the father of eugenics’ was justly celebrated during his lifetime for his very real scientific achievements. His ultimately wrongheaded ideas about selective breeding were shared by many on both the left as well as the right at the time. They would become inextricably linked to the horrors of Nazism, but this would only happen long after Galton’s death in 1911.
In short, this book presents a fascinating portrait of a society tentatively taking the small but essential stepping stones towards the world we know today.

Book review: Radical Victorians: The Women and Men who Dared to Think Differently, by James Hobson. Published: May 30th 2022, by Pen and Sword.

Book review: Carry On Regardless, by Caroline Frost

“Isn’t it funny that a series called the Carry On films has stopped?” jokes the comedian, Tim Vine.
They in fact stopped a very long time ago now – in 1978 – but the public fascination with them has never ceased. From the gentle but jolly black-and-white National Service comedy, Carry On Sergeant in 1958 to the abysmal Carry On Emmannuelle twenty years later, a total of thirty Carry Ons films were produced. The early films such as the most second and most commercially successful release, Carry On Nurse (1958) were written by Norman Hudis and tended to poke gentle fun at national institutions, for example, the Army, hospitals, police force and schools. A big change came when Talbot Rothwell took over as screenwriter for the the 007 spoof, Carry On Spying (1964), a development which coincided with the arrival of Barbara Windsor on the cast and the move into colour. Carry On Spying in which Windsor played Daphne Honeybutt was the last one to appear in black-and-white.

From that point onwards, the films became less innocent and more smutty. Characters started having names like Dr. Tinkle and Gladstone Screwer and the films were crammed with all the sexual innuendoes (“Ooh! What a lovely pair!” “Once a week is enough for any man|!”) which they’ve become notorious for. On the plus side, they also became notably more ambitious, parodying everything from historical epics (Carry On Cleo, the most highly regarded of the series or Carry On Up The Khyber) to the Hammer Horror series (Carry On Screaming) with mostly enjoyable results, while always remaining cheap to produce.


As the 1970s began, however, things took a turn for the worse as the changing social mores of the ever more permissive society pushed the films into the gutter. Carry On Henry (1971) was good fun and the contemporary Carry On Camping (1969) – famous for the scene in which Barbara Windsor’s top bursts off during an exercise session – was one of the most successful of the whole lot. But by the mid-70s, the quality had declined to such an extent that most of the regular cast (Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw) had abandoned the whole enterprise. Those familiar faces were, of course, a key reason why the films had done so well. By 1992, with many of the originals either dead (Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Peter Butterworth, Charles Hawtrey) or unwilling to be in it (Windsor, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor, Bernard Bresslaw and others), the disastrous attempt to revive the franchise with Carry On Columbus with a new cast of rising stars such as Julian Cary, Tony Slattery and Martin Clunes was doomed from the start.
Although it doesn’t gloss over the dark side of the series (the actors’ terrible pay, the miserable off-screen personal lives endured by Williams and Hawtrey), Caroline Frost’s book remains an affectionate portrait of a mostly fondly remembered national institution.

Book review: Carry On Regardless, by Caroline Frost. Published by: Pen and Sword. Available : now

Book review: Protecting the Presidential Candidates, by Mel Ayton

November 22nd 1963 was a terrible day for many people. For John McCormack, the 71-year-old Speaker of the House, it was an even more shocking time than for most. For McCormack was initially told not only that President John F. Kennedy, but also that his Vice President Lyndon Johnson had both been assassinated during their trip to Dallas. According to the line of succession this meant that he himself, as Speaker was now the US president. As the news sunk in, McCormack was overcome by a wave of vertigo and found himself momentarily unable to stand. When McCormack learnt the truth moments later: the Vice President was in fact completely unharmed and so he and not McCormack would become the next US president, a wave of relief spread across the old man’s face.
Mel Ayton’s book about the protection afforded to both presidents and candidates since the Kennedy era is full of such fascinating titbits. Both JFK and his brother, Bobby who was also shot and killed while seeking the presidency in 1968, both shared a fatalistic attitude to the possibility of assassination. As it turns out, Bobby’s tragic killing could have been very easily prevented. The racist presidential candidate, George Wallace, in contrast was generally very wary of the prospect of attack but was shot and paralysed during a brief moment of recklessness while on the campaign trail in 1972. Perhaps understandably, Ted Kennedy’s political career was haunted by constant fears that he might become the third successive Kennedy to fall foul of an assassin’s bullet. Richard Nixon used Ted Kennedy’s secret service detail as a means to spy on the senator who was a potential rival. Others have abused the secret service supplied, to them. JFK and Gary Hart both used them as a means to help facilitate their own womanising. Others have been resistant or unhelpful to their detail: Nixon’s tendency to plunge enthusiastically into large crowds without earning reportedly led him to be dubbed “a sniper’s dream.” Other candidates have treated their detail with much more respect and even something approaching friendship.
Ultimately, this is a full and revealing account of a fascinating subject. It is a shame that in the later chapters, Ayton’s political prejudices. notably his clear hostility to the Clinton family, get in the way of an otherwise compelling and readable factual account.

Protecting the Presidential Candidates: From JFK To Biden, by Mel Ayton. Published by: Frontline Books.

Book review: UnPresidented, by Jon Sopel

It was an election liķe no other.
The same, of course, has been said of most recent US elections ‐ the 2000 Bush/Gore disputed result, Obama’s historic 2008 win, the 2016 Trump upset. But as veteran British correspondent, Jon Sopel’s diaries remind us, the 2020 campaign really was, again, an election like no other. This is partly because of the unprecedented circumstances: the combination of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis and the George Floyd riots made it seem like a replay of 1919, 1929 and 1968 all at once.
It was also because of the uniquely eccentric and belligerent personality of the defeated Republican candidate, President Donald Trump. With the ultimately victorious Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden maintaining a low profile, the transparent and belligerent Trump largely lost the election by himself, suggesting at one point that the public inject themselves with bleach, deliberately and dishonestly playing down the extent of the pandemic and shamelessly and recklessly helping spread the virus himself amongst the population during his campaign.
Sopel’s compelling diaries now contain a new introduction on the violent aftermath of the election result and Trump’s second impeachment.

Book review: The Unofficial History of The Beano, by Iain McLaughlin

The Beano comic is now so old that there is now almost no one left alive in the UK who could not have potentially read it as a child.

The acclaimed children’s illustrator, Shirley Hughes, who died last month aged 94 apparently retained some memories of comics which “predated The Dandy and Beano.” Such people must be a rarity today. Besides even Hughes would have only just celebrated her eleventh birthday when the first Beano arrived in July 1938.

This book provides a decent and comprehensive history of Britain’s longest running comic authored by the appropriately named Iain McLaughlin, a onetime editor of The Beano himself.

This is as the title states, an unofficial history, however, and its worth mentioning that there are no images included from any issues of The Beano in this book at all. Such pictures as there are are mostly restricted to some fairly dry images of former contributors, statues of iconic characters such as Minnie the Minx and a cover which manages to evoke memories of the comic without actually including any pictures of characters at all. One wonders if there was some behind-the-scenes wrangling over this, perhaps explaining why the book was delayed from its original scheduled 2021 publication date.

It’s worth emphasising: this is still a solid, informative read. However, if you want to revisit the adventures of your favourite Beano characters be they Dennis the Menace, General Jumbo or Baby Face Finlayson, you’ll have to look elsewhere. There are no snapshots from Beano stories or even cover images inside.

Which Beano do you remember? Very old readers might just remember the very first Beanos featuring the likes of Big Eggo, Pansy Potter: The Strongman’s Daughter and Lord Snooty and his Pals. The new comic was one of three titles launched by Dundee-based publisher DC Thomson in the immediate pre-war era. The first, The Dandy (1937) featuring Korky the Cat and Desperate Dan was The Beano’s companion and rival until it folded in 2012 after an impressive 75-year run. The third comic, The Magic (1939), in contrast, never took off. Launched barely forty days before Hitler invaded Poland, the outbreak of the Second World War effectively finished The Magic off although it shared an annual with The Beano (‘The Magic-Beano Book’) for some years after its official closure in 1941.

Perhaps like my father’s generation, you’re old enough to remember The Beano’s 1950s golden age, a brilliant period for the comic which saw the launch of many of its most famous characters including Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger, the now politically incorrect Little Plum and, best of all, The Bash Street Kids which originally appeared under the Hemingway-esque moniker, When The Bell Rings.

All of these stories were still going when I myself started getting the comic in the mid-1980s now joined by the likes of Billy Whizz, Smudge and Ball Boy and as time wore on, Ivy The Terrible and Calamity James.

This is a good story about a comic which has lasted a phenomenal 84 years. Hopefully your own memories of The Beano are vivid enough that you won’t need to see pictures of Biffo the Bear, Plug or Les Pretend in order to enjoy this.

If you do, try Googling them!

Neighbours: The final goodbye…

Do you remember Scott and Charlene getting married and the song which played at their wedding? Do you remember Plain Jane Superbrain? Daphne’s whispered last words to Des? Lassiter’s? Henry falling in the pool? Toadfish? Stonefish? The Kennedys? Melanie’s laugh? Bouncer’s dream? If so, you’re sure to enjoy my latest feature which bids a fond farewell to Neighbours as the Australian soap begins its final journey to the great eternal Ramsay Street pool party in the sky.

Available in Yours magazine, out from March 22nd onwards!