Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.

The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.

Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.

Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.

The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.

A-Z of Exeter – Places – People – History, by Chris Hallam

Published by Amberley: October 15th 2019

For 2,000 years, the Devon city of Exeter has played a small but vital role in our nation’s history. There have been highs and lows. For centuries, it was one of the top cities in the land, elevated into a golden age of prosperity. But the city has also suffered countless incursions from a wide range of invaders both foreign and English. It came close to defeating William the Conqueror, remained defiant in the face of German bombing, fought on both sides in the English Civil War and has battled fires, plagues, sieges and pretenders to the throne.

This is Exeter’s story, told for the first time in alphabetical order.

Chapter headings include:

The Civil War

JK Rowling

The Exeter Blitz

The Great Theatre Fire

Witches on trial

Chris Hallam was born in Peterborough and settled in Exeter in 2005 where he now lives with his wife. He has written for a large number of local and national magazines including DVD Monthly, Yours Retro, Infinity, Geeky Monkey and Best of British. He also wrote The Smurfs annual 2014 and co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter in 2018.

The Man in the High Castle

Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):

It seems like a familiar sight. A lone sultry and very famous singer delivers a seductive performance of “happy birthday” to the birthday boy, actually her secret lover, who also happens to be her leader. But as she reaches the third line, something jars. The words change and things take a chilling turn. “Happy birthday…Mein Fuhrer,” are the star’s next words. For while this is Marilyn Monroe, she is not singing to President Kennedy, the charismatic young American president but to … someone else entirely.

So, begins the trailer for the second season of Amazon Prime’s, The Man In The High Castle. And as if we didn’t know already, this is a world in which history has taken a very different turn from our own. And not for the better.

THE REICH STUFF

The premise of The Man In The High Castle stems from the endlessly fascinating question; what would the world be like, had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan triumphed at the end of the Second World War instead of the Allies, (that is the United States, Soviet Union, British Empire and others)?

It was a question which once haunted the feverish, troubled but hugely imaginative mind of author Philip K Dick. The man whose writing ultimately inspired many of the greatest science fiction films of all time including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, Dick been just too young to fight for the US in World War II himself but nevertheless realised what a close thing the outcome of the war had been. Over fifty years’ ago, inspired by another novel which convincingly  imagined a victory for the slavery supporting Confederacy in the 1860s American Civil War, he set to work producing a book depicting a similar alternative ending to World War II.

Prone to hallucinations and sudden bouts of paranoia, Dick had a relatively short turbulent life, dying in 1982, aged just 63 without seeing most of his work reach the screen. But he enjoyed probably more success The Man in High Castle than with any other book during his lifetime.

WELCOME TO AMERICA: 1962

The first season of The Man In The High Castle in 2015 brought the book’s chilling vision vividly to the screen. The United States of America we know from this period (portrayed in the early series of Mad Men, amongst other things) was confident, victorious and powerful poised on the verge of huge successes such as in the space race, but also riven by racial division and on the brink of disaster both in the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the growing war in Vietnam. But the America portrayed here is very different: it is no longer in fact, even the “United States” at all. We soon learn that the west coast of the former USA is now under the control of the victorious Japanese while the eastern bit is under Nazi German rule. The Rocky Mountains meanwhile are a neutral buffer zone between the two sides, this being where the mysterious “man in the high castle” is said to reside.

 Tantalising hints as to what has befallen the Allies are scattered liberally throughout both the series and the book. One character suggests the great war leader President Franklin D. Roosevelt was assassinated long before the war started in this reality, perhaps explaining why the US did not win. Another suggests that the war dragged on until 1947 instead of 1945 here, only ending when Nazi Germany dropped an atomic bomb on Washington DC.

TORN ASUNDER

A divided land then and few of the characters we meet are not facing a conflict of the loyalty of some sort or another. With the first season still on Amazon Prime some might want to steer clear now. But for everyone else, here’s a quick reminder…

San Francisco resident Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) for example, an expert in aikido appears happy living under Japanese rule at the start of Season 1. That’s until her half-sister Trudy who turns out to have been a member of the anti-government Resistance, is unexpectedly killed. Juliana finds herself drawn herself into the work of the Resistance as she attempts to complete Trudy’s last job: delivering a tape entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy to the mythical man in the High Castle. Intriguingly, the tape depicts an alternative version of history in which the US and the Allies defeated Germany and Japan! Essentially, the world in the tape is very like our own.

Juliana is aided and abetted by her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) a man enjoying some creative success but who has a dark secret which pushes him closer and closer to full blown rebellion: he is Jewish. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) meanwhile faces conflict of a different sort. Although supposedly a member of the Resistance he is in fact a secret agent in the employ of SS Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). Although very clearly a baddie, Smith is far from the typical stereotypical black and white Nazi villain. As his name suggests, he is an American-born participant in the new regime. A family man living a comfortable suburban life, it is suggested he has been drawn to Nazism by the apparent failure of the old American system in the Great Depression of the Thirties. Trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is yet another character who finds himself torn between conflicting loyalties. The new series also sees Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) begins to take more interest in the Man in the High Castle.

With Juliana, increasingly unsure what to do about the treacherous Joe, Joe doubting his own continued commitment to the Third Reich, Smith increasingly doubtful about the Nazi philosophy after the illness of one of his children, more revelations from The Grasshopoper Lies Heavy tapes and mounting tensions between Germany and Japan, the ten hour long episodes of Season Two of The Man In The High Castle promise to be just as compelling and as full of intrigue as the first.

At the root of the series’ success however is its authentic portrayal of a chilling but plausible alternative version of American history that though perhaps a touch more plausible in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory, has mercifully never existed.

WHO’S IN IT?

ALEXA DAVALOS

Playing the starring role of Juliana Crain, French-born Alexa has appeared in a good range of TV (Angel, Mob City) and films (notably The Chronicles of Riddick and Clash of the Titans).

RUPERT EVANS

With a key role in Ewan MacGregor’s recently released directorial debut American Pastoral, British actor Evans who plays Frank Frink has been in plays, TV and film aplenty, notably offbeat superhero flick Hellboy.

RUFUS SEWELL

Instantly recognisable as the older man love interest Lord Melbourne in the recent ITV Victoria, Sewell, also British, has been playing sexy villains for years in A Knight’s Tale, The Legend of Zorro and other films and TV.

Victoria vs. Poldark

Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):

VICTORIA

Send her victorious? As the dust settles, ITV’s Victoria is widely seen as the winner of this autumn’s big ratings battle with BBC’s Poldark. But whatever the outcome, both are likely to be big sellers on DVD this Christmas.

In retrospect, with its attractive cast and sumptuous period setting, it might seem hard to see how Victoria could have failed. But fail, she very easily could have. A few months ago, Jenna Coleman’s post-Doctor Who credentials were unproven. But as the teenaged Queen assuming leadership of the greatest empire the world has ever seen, Coleman has triumphed, her decision to forsake the TARDIS, totally vindicated.

Her on screen romances with her first Prime Minister Lord Melbourne (played by aging sex symbol, Rufus Sewell) and more famously German aristocrat, Prince Albert (Tom Hughes) were also well received. Although given that Coleman is already far more attractive than the real Queen Victoria ever was and that her infatuation with Melbourne along with much of the plotting which makes up much of the storyline is largely fictional, the series soon faced charges of historical inaccuracy.

But unlike the last attempt to tackle this subject matter – 2009’s film The Young Victoria – this is a success. Perhaps it is fitting that that earlier film was written by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes. For it is in Victoria, that ITV has truly found a period drama to compare to Downton’s level of success. Long live the Queen!

POLDARK

The wilds of late 18th century Cornwall have proven fertile ground for drama before. First, there was Winston Graham’s dozen or so hugely successful Poldark novels. Then there was the hit 1970s TV series. Finally, there was last year’s BBC ratings smash Poldark starring Aidan Turner. It was only a matter of time before Poldark returned. With the second outing proving another success, both recent series are available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

This is perhaps inevitably a sexier affair than the 1970s series: recognising this, Turner is required to take his shirt off in the first episode of the second series. But let’s not get carried away: were Poldark not compelling, well-acted, authentic and reasonably faithful to its source material, it would never have worked. The second series begins where the last one finished: with Ross accused of murder.

Thanks to this and the likes of War and Peace and The Night Manager, the BBC has had a good year for TV drama in 2016. But while one wouldn’t want to rain on Poldark’s undoubted success, it is worth noting that Poldark though screened on BBC One was, like Victoria, made by ITV Studios. With ITV also behind a number of the notable period drama hits of recent years such as Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge, is it conceivable the Beeb’s status as the home of British period drama could be under threat? Only time will tell.

WHO’S IN IT?

AIDAN TURNER

A familiar face to many already thanks to roles including the poet Rossetti in TV’s Desperate Romantics, as the conflicted vampire in Being Human and Kili in the Hobbit films, the Irish actor’s dark brooding sex appeal as Ross Poldark has undoubtedly smoothed the show’s path to success.

ELEANOR TOMLINSON

As Ross Poldark’s beautiful second wife Demelza, Eleanor Tomlinson has seen her star rise considerably. A film actress since her early teens, her CV includes major supporting roles in big screen flop, Jack The Giant Killer and BBC War of the Roses historical drama, The White Queen.

JACK FARTHING

As the ruthless, arrogant and determined power-hungry banker George Warleggan, Jack Farthing has essentially taken the role of Poldark’s villain. A theatre actor, the Oxford-educated Farthing is best known for posh roles such as Freddie Threepwood in P.G. Wodehouse adaptation Blandings and for Oxford University-based film drama, The Riot Club.

Book review: Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need To Know

Book review: Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need To Know. By Ian Haydn Smith. Illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia. Published by: White Lion. Out now.

What makes a cult filmmaker? The key qualities seem to be distinctiveness and a degree of obscurity. Hitchcock and Spielberg were and are great filmmakers, but both are much too famous now to be included in a volume like this. Hitchcock might have appeared once. Spielberg too, perhaps in the brief interim after the release of Dual but before Jaws. But not now.

Indeed, it could argued that just by highlighting the fifty directors included in this volume in a book specifically titled, ‘Cult Filmmakers’, author Ian Haydn Smith is simultaneously undermining their cult status as much as he is re-enforcing it.

That is not to attack the book, which is a good one. The author’s choices are intriguing and it is almost as interesting to see who has been left out as it is to see who has been included. Sam Raimi doesn’t feature. Nor does Wes Anderson or the Coens. Presumably, the men behind The Evil Dead, Blood Simple and Rushmore would have been considered cult filmmakers once. However, they are now ineligible as they’ve all moved onto more mainstream successes as the men behind Spiderman, Intolerable Cruelty and Isle of Dogs.

But if this is the reason, it’s odd that the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton and Kathryn Bigelow are. Other selections are less contentious: David Lynch, David Cronenberg and ‘Pope of Trash’ John Waters, have all achieved fame, while retaining their cult status. Some such as John Carpenter seem to have lost their initial cultiness, only to later recapture it.

The book is stylishly illustrated by Kristelle Rodeia. Occasionally, the pictures look nothing like their subjects e.g. Terry Gilliam. It doesn’t matter.

Personally, I am most grateful for the chapters shedding light on Amat Escalante, Benjamin Christensen and Barbara Loden, amongst others. Until this book, they were undeniably in my eyes, cult filmmakers: I had never heard of any of them. But now I do. And this can only be a good thing.

Book review: The Friends of Harry Perkins, by Chris Mullin

“Who is Harry Perkins?” you might ask.

The answer lies within Chris Mullin’s excellent 1982 novel, A Very British Coup. Written in the dark days of early Thatcherism, Mullin envisaged a future (the late 1980s), in which Perkins, a working-class hero and onetime Sheffield steelworker leads the Labour Party to an unexpected General Election victory on a manifesto not dissimilar to the one Labour lost on in 1983. Perkins’ Labour Party is thoroughly socialist and the new government quickly embarks on fulfilling the radical agenda it has been elected on: dismantling Britain’s nuclear deterrent and leaving NATO, breaking up the newspaper monopolies, redistributing wealth and more.

Needless to say, the establishment: the civil service, the media and the security services are horrified. They immediately begin conspiring with the US (who, viewing things through a Cold War prism, see Britain as having “gone over to the other side”) in a bid to thwart the programme of the democratically elected government. It is a great read.

Mullin was writing at a very volatile political time. In 1980, the new Thatcher government was already proving to be such a complete disaster that it seemed hopelessly doomed. For much of 1981, the SDP, not Labour, seemed set to replace them. By the post-Falklands summer of 1982, the resurgent Tories again seemed unbeatable, as indeed, proved the case, the Iron Lady having staged her own very British coup in the South Atlantic. We are in very volatile times again now. The future in the Brexit era is very hard to foresee.

In this long-awaited sequel, Chris Mullin (now a former Labour MP himself) creates a convincing near future which cleverly not only seems sadly only too plausible but which also makes sense in the context of what has happened in the earlier book.

It is the 2020s. With Brexit having proven a miserable failure, serious consideration is being given to a humiliated Britain going crawling cap in hand and applying to rejoin the EU. Trump has left office, but has left the international situation thoroughly de-stablised. Today’s leaders have left the political stage. A King is on the throne, as he was in the earlier novel. Labour seemingly locked in perpetual opposition under an ineffectual woman leader seems poised for a takeover by the former aide of the recently deceased former Prime Minister, Harry Perkins, Fred Thompson (Mullin isn’t much of a one for glamorous character names). As so often happens, Perkins, the scourge of the status quo in life is now hailed by left and right alike as a great leader of the past, now he is safely dead. Thompson was played by Keith Allen in the acclaimed 1980s TV version of the book is still middle aged (Mullin admits to some authorial sleight of hand here: only ten years have passed since the events of the first book, not thirty or forty).

But can Fred Thompson succeed in leading Labour back to power and restoring Britain to it’s former glory? Will his family difficulties or a rising tide of violence threatening to engulf British politics get in the way?

The Daily Telegraph describes this book “preposterous.” Presumably, they mean “preposterous” in the sense that it doesn’t mindlessly back Brexit or shamelessly back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid as that newspaper did.

This is perhaps – like Thompson himself -not quite the equal of its illustrious predecessor. But it is a fine sequel and an excellent, short-ish read.

Published by: Scribner UK. 192 pages

2,001 ‘facts’ about 2001: A Space Odyssey

(Part One)

Director Stanley Kubrick considered withdrawing the film soon after release in response to tabloid reports that groups of young men had been launching ‘copycat’ manned space expeditions to the planet Jupiter.

Conspiracy theorists have speculated that Kubrick made the film as part of a plot to fake the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landings. This is, of course, nonsense. He was already too busy faking the Vietnam War.

The final line of the film is “My God! It’s full of stars!” This claim is untrue: in fact, there are no Hollywood stars in it. Leonard Rossiter is literally the most famous person in the film and even he hadn’t been in ‘Rising Damp’ then.

The apes at the start of the film are speaking in genuine prehistoric dialect. Roughly translated, they are saying things like: “God, this is taking a while to get going isn’t it?” “Hey! Watch what happens when I throw this bone in the air!” and “Shit! Where did that big black thing come from? That wasn’t there just now…”

Ever the perfectionist, Kubrick made one extra throw the bone in the air 7,674 times, even before he switched his camera on.

The song ‘Daisy Bell’ was not Kubrick’s first choice for the famous HAL shutdown scene. He had originally planned to use the song, ‘Cinderella Rockerfella’ sung in duet with another computer voiced by Barbara Streisand. This didn’t happen only because Kubrick never thought of it.

Although authentic-looking, very few of the scenes were actually shot in space.

Stanley Kubrick originally planned to film the movie in real time, starting in the prehistoric era.

Some viewers reported finding the film overlong. Some even claimed it was longer than the actual year, 2001 itself, including those who had watched it during the year, 2001.

A pilot for a spin-off TV sitcom , ‘You Can Call Me HAL,’ in which the computer sang ‘Daisy Bell’ during the credits and occasionally killed people was made, but never aired as it was shit.

Some have noticed that if you move the letters of the name ‘HAL’ one letter back in the alphabet it spells out the initials: ‘GZK’.

Things which the film predicted correctly about the year 2001: there would be some were people around doing stuff with computers and space. Things it got wrong: manned space expeditions to Jupiter, computers don’t usually take that long to shut down, classical music wasn’t that popular.

Kubrick was reportedly disappointed that very few people really thought the flying bone had actually turned into a spaceship.

He also was surprised so many people guessed the ‘twist’ that the planet of the apes at the start was supposed to be Earth.

Alternative names for the film which were considered were: Million Dollar Space Baby, The Keir Dullea Movie, Monolithicent, Kubrick’s Pube and The Apes of Wrath.

Imagine there were no Beatles…

Ten ways in which the world would really have been different without the Fab Four…

The hit Danny Boyle film, Yesterday envisages a world in which the biggest band of all time had never existed. But what if they really hadn’t? Consider…

First things first: the early series of Thomas The Tank Engine would not have been narrated by Ringo Starr. Someone else would have to have been found to do it instead, wasting considerable time and expense.

The career of the talented multimedia artist, Yoko Ono would have been allowed to continue without interruption, rather than being crudely sidetracked.

“Yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye, crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess, man, you been a naughty girl, you let your knickers down, I am the eggman, we are the eggmen, I am the walrus, Goo goo g’joob”. Out of context, such lyrics would just sound like drug-induced nonsense. Imagine!

The career of fashion designer Stella McCartney would never have happened. This would obviously…er…have huge effects for everyone.

It is quite likely (although not certain) Linda McCartney’s vegetarian and vegan food range, would not have been launched. Julian Lennon would have not had a 1984 number 6 hit with ‘Too Late For Goodbyes’ either.

Pete Best would probably feel better about how his career has gone.

None of the Beatles’ post-Beatles careers would have occurred. Imagine no Mull of Kintyre. No Frog Chorus. So This Is Christmas. Imagine no…Imagine.

The film explicitly stated that the Beatles-influenced Oasis had never existed either, in which case, isn’t it a bit surprising Jack didn’t have a go at an Oasis track too? Although perhaps not Cigarettes and Alcohol, as cigarettes are another one of the things that don’t exist in this world. One wonders if Oasis would still have existed in some form anyway or how strongly they or other bands would have been affected by the Beatles’ absence. Would Madonna sound the same? Would Lady GaGa? Would Martin Amis have written in the same way? Ultimately, we will never know.

The Monty Python film, The Life of Brian would not exist as it owes its existence to George Harrison financially bailing the film out, as he wanted to see it himself. Eric Idle’s post-Python parody, The Rutles would also not exist.

Needless to say, the Beatles’ films, A Hard Day’s Night, Help! and Yellow Submarine would never have been made without The Beatles. Nor would any films inspired by them such as Backbeat, the little-seen Across The Universe. Or Yesterday.

DVD review: Ghosts – Series 1

BBC Studios Home Entertainment, Out: now

Lolly Adefope, Mathew Baynton, Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Charlotte Ritchie, Kiell Smith-Bynoe, Ben Willbond, Katy Wix

The spirit of Rentaghost is resurrected in this recent BBC sitcom, the highest rated British TV comedy series of 2019 thus far.

Charlotte Ritchie and Kiell Smith-Bynoe play Alison and Mike, a young married couple whose lives are transformed when Alison unexpectedly inherits a large, but dilapidated rural manor house, following the death of an unknown elderly aunt.

The house contains many secrets, however, not least a large party of ghosts who dwell within. All are from different historical time periods and all are invisible to most normal humans, ensuring their initial attempts to haunt the house’s new owners all in vain, rather like the Tim Burton film, Beetlejuice. This changes when Alison (Ritchie star of Fresh Meat and Call The Midwife) bangs her head in an accident. Soon, she alone, can see the home’s phantom residents, whether she wants to or not.

The ghosts – all played by the former cast of the acclaimed Horrible Histories and Yonderland and who, mostly, also wrote this – are, of course, the chief source of fun here. Mathew Baynton (The Wrong Mans, Quacks), for example, plays a romantic poet hopelessly besotted with the still very much alive and married Alison, while Katy Wix (Not Going Out) plays the ghost of a slightly charred 17th century peasant woman apparently burnt to death for witchcraft.

Most hilarious are the great Simon Farnaby (The Detectorists and, appropriately, the man who sang ‘Stupid Deaths’ on Horrible Histories) as a disgraced 1990s Tory politician, still massively pompous, despite now being permanently trouser-less having died in some unspecified sex accident. Laurence Rickard also works wonders as Robin, (“bum and chips!”) a caveman, who lived on the grounds of the estate, long before it was built.

How did such a random assortment of characters ever come to live in the same house, even at different times? Why does every one of the Ghosts seem to have died prematurely? Doesn’t it all feel a bit like a children’s programme? Ultimately, none of these things really matter. Were it not for the presence of a few deliberate adult references (including a brief appearance by a genuinely scary child ghost), this would fit in perfectly well on CBBC.

Again, though, this hardly matters. Occasionally, Ghosts’ large regular cast works against it and the show is overwhelmed by chaos and silliness. But overall, this is good fun from a talented bunch of actors and writers. If your mansion house needs haunting, look no further.

A second series is on its way, in 2020.

The BFJ (2016)

People all over the land have been thrilling to the antics of the huge lumbering giant BFJ, otherwise known as Boris Fucking Johnson.

“I love how he uses funny long words which nobody understands, ” says Colin, 66, from Kent. “Like ‘rambunctious’ and ‘flibbertigibbet’. I also like how he travels to lots of different countries all around the world, really fast.”

Miranda, 44, from Chelsea, also enjoys Boris Fucking Johnson’s adventures. “He’s always saying the wrong thing!” she laughs. “He blows dreams into people’s ears. Mainly dreams about the UK benefiting economically by leaving the European Union.”

Boris Fucking Johnson has definitely NOT been seen enticing young women out of their windows as some have claimed.

Other, less popular recent characters from the same stable include Danny Alexander: Champion of the World, James Brokenshire and the Giant Speech, George Osborne’s Marvellous Economic Medicine and The Fantastic Dr. Liam Fox.