TV review: The Crown. Season 5. Episode 4: Annus Horribilis

Stand down Margaret: The Princess (Lesley Manville) faces up to the truth

Did you know the Queen’s sister once very nearly married James Bond?

Well, okay, that didn’t exactly happen. But in this episode, the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret (the brilliant Lesley Manville) meets up with her first love, retired equerry, Group Captain Peter Townsend. And he’s now played by Timothy Dalton, who once famously played 007. You see what I mean? Dalton was, in fact, still officially cast as James Bond in 1992 the very year this episode was set. For all that matters.

It’s all quite poignant. As depicted in The Crown: Season 1, the official refusal to allow the young Princess and the divorced Group Captain (then played by Vanessa Kirby and Coupling star Ben Miles: both seen here in flashback) effectively wrecked poor old Margaret’s life. He went on to marry someone else, happily and successfully. She married too: disastrously, leaving her bitter, boozy and resentful. However, here they get to meet one final time. This apparently did happen but not in quite the way it happens here. Margaret is left shaken not stirred as he woos the living daylights out of her (apologies).

There’s some more dramatic licence here: we see Townsend listening to Margaret being interviewed by Roy Plomley on Desert Island Discs as if this occurred, like the rest of the episode in 1992. In fact, as all true BBC Radio 4 fans will know, that particular episode was broadcast in 1981. Plomley died in 1985, in fact, so it is rather surprising to see him still alive seven years’ later.

Anyway, it becomes clear there is still some lingering tension between the Queen (Imelda Staunton) and Margaret over the issue although this all seems to be resolved by the end of the episode. Lesley Manville is great as ever as Margaret. You have to wonder if she was ever considered as a possible option to play the Queen herself

Talking of which, the Queen has a lot on her plate this time. Royal divorces are like buses. You wait ages for one and then three come along at once. First, Anne (Claudia Harrison) wants to remarry after her divorce. This provokes anguished complaint from Margaret. If she can do it, why couldn’t I? In truth, the situations are not actually identical. Anne is the daughter of the Queen not her sister. Anne is also the divorced one in this instance, not her proposed husband. Margaret has also now been permitted to get divorced herself and could presumably remarry if she wished. Margaret also was given the option of marrying Townsend if she was prepared to relinquish all claims on the throne. That said, none of these points are brought up here and Margaret is certainly justified in feeling aggrieved. For the record, Anne’s second marriage to Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence has now lasted for thirty years. It is the most enduring of any of the six marriages entered into by the children of the late Queen Elizabeth II.

Next up, the now disgraced Prince Andrew (James Murray) announces his marriage to the toe-sucking Fergie is over (no, not the football manager or the one from the Black Eyed Peas). Worst of all, the once and future king, Charles (Dominic West) confirms his marriage is over too. Then Windsor Castle burns down. If the 1990s was the worst decade of the Queen’s reign, then 1992 was the worst year. Perhaps of her entire life.

This prompts the famous Annus Horribilis speech in which the Queen admits that 1992’s been as Francis of Assisi might have put it “a complete and utter shitshow”. The Queen Mother (Marion Bailey) objects to the speech: in a touching scene Philip (Jonathan Pryce) and the Queen defend each other. None of the conversation apparently really happened. It doesn’t really matter: the speech undeniably marked a shift away from the stiff upper lipped attitudes of the past towards the “I feel your pain” approach of the post-Diana era.

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.

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: 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.

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”.

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: 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: Napoleon, by John Bowle

It used to be said that when people went completely insane that they traditionally often came to believe that they were Napoleon.
Imagine then how Napoleon Bonaparte himself must have felt. Not only did he spend his entire life totally and utterly convinced he was Napoleon, but it turns out, he actually really was Napoleon all along! It must have been a traumatic experience for him.
This old book by the late John Bowle reminds us of the massive impact Napoleon had on the world during his relatively short time on Earth. Rising from humble origins, he not only completely transformed his nation’s military fortunes but revolutionised post-revolutionary France and changed the world forever. He was not the total monster either Hitler or Stalin would prove to be. He did some good while undoubtedly unleashing a significant amount of warfare and misery in his quest for global supremacy.
This is a tale that has been told many times before. As ABBA wisely remind us in the song ‘Waterloo’, “the history book on the shelf, it’s always repeating itself.” But Bowle’s version is told very well indeed.


Book review: The Prime Ministers We Never Had: Success and Failure from Butler to Corbyn, by Steve Richards

Steve Richards knows his stuff.

His previous book, The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson focused on the ten most recent British occupants of 10 Downing Street.

In his new book, even the list of subjects chosen is potentially contentious as Richards has specifically chosen to focus on the ten people who he feels came closest to becoming Prime Minister in the last sixty or so years without ever quite achieving it.

The list actually includes eleven people, not ten, as Richards has judged the two Milibands to be equally worthy of a place here and are both dealt with in one chapter.

The figures included are:

Rab Butler, Roy Jenkins, Barbara Castle, Denis Healey, Neil Kinnock, Michael Heseltine,  Michael Portillo, Ken Clarke, David and Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn.

It is a good selection. Of the eleven, only three were ever party leader. Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband were both cruelly denied power after losing General Elections (in 1992 and 2015) which most opinion polls and most people expected them to emerge from as Prime Minister, as at the very least, the leaders of a Hung Parliament. In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn caused a major upset by wiping out Theresa May’s majority in an unnecessary election which she had expected to win by a landslide. For a short period, Corbyn seemed achingly close to power. But his last two years as Opposition leader were disastrous and in 2019, he lost far more heavily to the Tories, by then under their new leader, Boris Johnson.

Two others on the list, Rab Butler and Michael Heseltine came close to becoming leader while their parties were in power.  But while supremely well-qualified for the position of PM on paper, Butler lacked the qualities necessary to secure the position in practice. He lost out three times in 1955, 1957 and 1963. He was ultimately outmanoeuvred by the far more ruthless Harold Macmillan. Amongst other things, his speech to the 1963 Party Conference was much too dull to excite the Tory Faithful.

Michael Heseltine’s party conference speeches, in contrast, were never dull but he faced a near impossible challenge in 1990 in attempting to both remove Margaret Thatcher from office and replace her. He succeeded in the first but failed to achieve the latter despite remaining a potential leadership contender until after the Tories lost power in 1997. Although he wisely avoids going down the counter-factual history route, Richards does speculate that as Prime Minister, Heseltine may well have fundamentally changed Britain forever. Alas, we will never know.

Ultimately, all eleven of the figures featured here failed to win the premiership for different reasons. Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey and Ken Clarke all attempted to swim against the opposing tides then prevailing within their own parties. Onetime heir to the Thatcherite legacy, Michael Portillo, meanwhile, was forced into such a fundamental rethink of his values by his 1997 defeat, that he seemed to have lost all his enthusiasm for leadership by the time he was finally able to contest it in 2001. Many of his original supporters by then had their doubts as to whether they still wanted him to be leader too.

Richards’ list is almost as interesting for those it misses off as for those it includes. From the outset, his position is clear: in this book, he is only interested in the reasons why people didn’t become PM. He thus wastes no time on the tragic cases of Hugh Gaitskell, Iain Macleod or John Smith, all of whom lost any chance they might have had simply as a result of their sadly premature deaths. He also wastes no time on no-hopers. Whatever qualities they might have had, nobody ever expected Michael Foot or William Hague to make the jump from Opposition leader to Downing Street, least of all the men themselves.

I am surprised by Reginald Maudling’s exclusion from the list, however. Whatever his flaws, he was widely expected to beat Edward Heath to the Tory leadership in 1965 and from there may well have led the Tories back into power as Heath himself somehow managed to do. Richards also (perhaps after some hesitation) rejects Tony Benn from the list arguing:

“Benn almost qualifies as a prime minister we never had but fails to do so because, unlike Corbyn, he was never leader of the Opposition and he never had a credible chance of becoming prime minister while Labour was in government.”

This is fair enough but it does make Barbara Castle’s inclusion as one of the ten seem a bit conspicuous. She never after all, even stood for party leader. Yet it arguably doesn’t matter. Castle was a colourful and interesting character. She might have become leader and her inclusion proves a useful entry point for discussing other female politicians of the time such as Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher. Richards’ writing is consistently engaging and well-argued. And rest assured, the likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot certainly get lots of coverage here anyway.

It is a sad book, in some ways. Neil Kinnock possessed many brilliant qualities and achieved much but his nine years as Opposition leader were generally agonising. He arguably saved the Labour Party only to find that he himself had become their biggest obstacle to it ever winning power. Both Milibands were hugely talented too but ultimately found their own ambitions effectively cancelled each other out with disastrous consequences for both them and their family. Jeremy Corbyn, a man who Richards reliably assures us is almost completely lacking in any personal vanity at all ended up finding himself widely labelled as narcissistic.

It is an excellent book nevertheless confirming Steve Richards’ position as one of our finest political writers. Perhaps Rishi Sunak and Sir Keir Starmer should grab a copy and take note if only to help ensure they don’t find themselves in any future editions?

Published by: Atlantic Books.

Book review: 1922, Scenes From A Turbulent Year, by Nick Rennison

Although not obviously unusually significant, 1922 was a reasonably eventful year in global history. In Italy, a rally organised by Benito Mussolini got out of hand, resulting in a 'March on Rome' and, almost accidentally, the establishment of the world's first Fascist state. In Britain, the BBC (then called 'the British Broadcasting Company') began broadcasting for the first time. T.S Eliot's landmark poem, The Wasteland was published. Music hall legend, Marie Lloyd died. Harold R. Harris became the first man ever to successfully bail himself out of a plane by using a parachute.

An eventful year indeed and all of these events occurred just in one month of 1922 (October). Many more occurred throughout the rest of the year.
On a month by month basis, Nick Rennison's readable popular history book explores a number of the year's events. We learn about feats of speed and aviation, early Hollywood scandals, sporting successes, notorious trials and about Howard Carter's  discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb. We learn about the rise of the Flapper (1920s slang for any thoroughly modern fun-loving young woman) and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Assassins strike. American lynch mobs converge. In newly Soviet Russia, the ailing Lenin watches as Trotsky and Stalin battle to succeed him. The world recovers from a global pandemic.
A fascinating snapshot of the vanished world of a century ago.

Book review: 1922, Scenes From A Turbulent Year, by Nick Rennison. Published by: Oldcastle Books. Available: now.

Facebook Vs. Meta

So, ‘Facebook’ has changed its name to ‘Meta’.

Talking to people about Facebook is a bit like talking to them about God: no two people see it in quite the same way and most people don’t really believe in it all. My own personal experience of Facebook is that it has become an increasingly faceless experience in recent years anyway. It has certainly never felt anything like reading a book. A book of faces sounds more like an album anyway.

Whatever else it might be, it certainly isn’t very ‘meta.’ Facebook (today aside) does not talk about itself endlessly. This would work better as a new name for the BBC. No, Facebook works best as a means to keep up with old friends or rivals without having to suffer the indignity of talking to them. The name ‘Eyeball’ would work better.

As for Twitter? The name ‘Twitter’ suggests a pleasant, idle conversation, perhaps one overheard in the distance through an open window which you might feel drawn towards joining in. The reality is somewhat different. These days Twitter is more akin to overhearing two cats fighting nearby. It is the living realisation of the Monty Python sketch where a man turns up and politely books himself in to have an argument. Arguments can be found on Twitter 24 hours a day. Just type in one of the magic words, ‘Boris,’ ‘Trump,’ ‘Brexit,’ ‘vaxxers’ or ‘BBC.’ ‘Bluster’ would be a more suitable name than ‘Twitter.’ Or perhaps ’Fume,’ ‘BeltUp  or ‘Firestorm.’

Amazon is a dramatically inappropriate name as the Amazon rainforest is the one part of the world most gravely threatened by its continued existence. Perhaps a better name for it would draw immediate attention to its leading role in precipitating environmental catastrophe. What’s the simplest way to make water levels rise? Putting stones in it. Perhaps that would be the idea name for it? Water Stones?

Facebook is, of course, of a similar vintage to MySpace. This was actually a perfectly good name suggesting the user had captured their own little bit of the internet in which they were at liberty to express themselves freely. MySpace is, of course, now long defunct. But we live in an age where ‘extinction’ like ‘meta’ has in itself become a fashionable buzz word. Had MySpace only had the foresight to change its name to something like ‘Extinction’ or ‘Oblivion,’ I suspect it would still be with us today.

2000AD timeline 12: 1988

1988 (Progs 555-607)

January: (Progs 557/558): Nemesis Book 7 The Two Torquemadas ends (Pat Mills/John Hickleton) ends and is followed immediately by Book 8: Purity’s Story (Mills/David Roach).

(Progs 558-559): Zenith returns in a two-episode interlude (Grant Morrison/Steve Yeowell).

February: (Prog 560): Strontium Dog returns in Stone Killers (Grant/Ezquerra).

(Prog 561): First Hap Hazard (Steve Dillon).

March: (Prog 566): First Tyranny Rex (John Smith/Steve Dillon).

Flux, John Brosnan’s occasional movies feature first appears.

April: (Prog 568): Rogue Trooper is back in Hit (Simon Geller/Steve Dillon).

(Prog 570): Dredd Mega-epic Oz comes to an end.

(Prog 571): Luke Kirby debuts in the unusual (but great) 2000AD strip, Summer Magic (Alan McKenzie/John Ridgway).

May: (Prog 573): After ten years, Carlos Ezquerra draws his last Strontium Dog (he returns to it much later).

(Prog 576): Bad Company II: The Krool Heart begins (Peter Milligan/Brett Ewins/Jim McCarthy) begins.

July: (Prog 581): ABC Warriors adventure, The Black Hole ends (Mills/Simon Bisley/SMS).

(Prog 585) Peter Milligan’s Tribal Memories begins.

First ever Judge Dredd Mega-Special is published.

August: (Prog 586): Nemesis, Book 9: Deathbringer (Mills/Hickleton).

(Prog 589): New look: 2000AD cover goes all glossy and shiny! Four colour pages are added – the second episode of Judge Dredd: Twister (art by John Ridgway) now goes into full colour after being black and white for part one (a Wizard of Oz reference). Zenith returns and Slaine The King begins properly (Pat Mills/Glenn Fabry). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cover price rises to 35p.

November: Prog 600! Strontium Dog: The Final Solution begins (Alan Grant/Simon Harrison).

(Prog 601): Special one-off Bad Company story, Simply. Art is produced in four and half hours by Brett Ewins and Brendan McCarthy to raise money for charity.

December:

The first ever 2000AD Winter Special is published. It includes new adventures for Dredd, Anderson, Zenith, Strontium Dog and Summer Magic’s Luke Kirby and an Alan Moore scripted Rogue Trooper reprinted from the 2000AD annual 1984.

Elsewhere:

Transvision Vamp release a song, ‘Hanging With Halo Jones.’

January: War comic Battle (est: 1974) merges into The Eagle.

Children’s Star Wars animated spin-off, Droids, follows Ewoks onto Children’s BBC.

February: Robocop goes on general release in the UK.

Comedy sci-fi Red Dwarf debuts on BBC Two. It’s arrival is almost entirely unnoticed.

March: Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s Batman graphic novel, The Killing Joke is published.

Rob Reiner’s movie fantasy, The Princess Bride is released. Now a much-loved classic, it flops on its original release.

May: Starship Troopers author, Robert E. Heinlein dies, aged eighty.

July: Japanese anime, Akira is released in Japan (in UK in 1991).

September: Crisis, a new fortnightly comic begins. It aims to be e political and slightly more mature version of 2000AD. Early stories include Third World War (Mills/Ezquerra) and The New Statesmen (John Smith/Jim Baikie). The comic runs for 63 issues before folding in 1991.

Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi movie, The Running Man is released in the UK.

October: Deadline, a monthly comic/magazine is launched. Unlike Crisis, it is not directly connected to 2000AD but is started by 2000AD artists, Steve Dillon and Brett Ewins. A fun combination of comic stories and articles, Deadline continues until 1995. The story, Tank Girl is a major success, later spawning a feature film and launching the career of young Jamie Hewlett, future co-creator of virtual band, Gorillaz with Blur’s Damon Albarn.

Charles Dance genetic engineering drama, First Born arrives on BBC One.

Another science-fiction comic, Wildcat is launched. It survives for only twelve issues, ending in March 1989.

December: Fantasy film, Willow is released in the UK. It flops.

Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines and websites including The Companion, Yours Retro, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle, Metalzoic and Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In the past, he wrote for Metro.co.uk, Radio Times, DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He also provided all the written content for the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars as well as for sections of the 2014 South Park annual and all the 2015 Transformers annual.

Book review: 101 Ways To Win An Election

A politician will be asked many questions during the course of their life. “Are you going to resign, Minister?” and “Did you threaten to overrule him?” are two less friendly examples. But for anyone hoping to launch their own political career, this book asks all the critical questions anyone aspiring to political office will need to answer if they are going to overcome what should be the first major obstacle to achieving power: winning an election. Never mind, “What do I believe in?” or “why do I want to do this?” These are questions you will have to answer for yourself. Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield are seasoned veterans of a number of successful and unsuccessful campaigns. There is no agenda here, other than to educate the reader as to how best to win whatever campaign they are fighting, be it for election to parliament, parish council or to the PTA. It is full of practical advice. Now on it’s third edition, it is first and foremost an essential guidebook on how to get elected. It is not primarily intended as a source of interest for geeky political bystanders like myself. Although it does fulfil that role too, it must be said.

Let us give a few examples from the text. Have you given any thought to whose votes your trying to win? If your answer to this is “everyone’s” then think again. You need to be more targeted than that. The bad news is, you’re not going to win everyone’s votes. The good news is, you don’t have to.

Are you campaigning for continuity or change? Are you trying to win new supporters or consolidate your position with existing ones? And how do you come across to the electorate? Are you, as Steve van Riel has suggested, Darth Vader (ruthless, but effective) or Father Dougal from Father Ted (caring, consensual but ineffective)?

The book tackles everything from broad strokes to the nitty gritty. How do you recruit a loyal campaign team? How should you deal with internet trolls? How do you deal with the media and get your voice heard? How do you drum home a consistent message without sounding robotic or repetitive? How do you attack your opponents without insulting and alienating potential future supporters?

It’s all here in what remains the definitive election campaign handbook of our times.

Book review: 101 Ways To Win An Election (Third Edition), by Mark Pack and Edward Maxfield. Published by: Biteback. Available: now.

The Crichton Factor

The science fiction of Michael Crichton

First published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2016.

The Admirable Crichton

During a forty year career, the fertile mind of Michael Crichton created numerous stories featuring deadly plagues, rebellious robots and resurgent dinosaurs. With a new TV version of Crichton’s Westworld striding boldly towards us this October, Geeky Monkey takes a look at the work of a man who left a huge indelible footprint on the history of science fiction…

WORDS: CHRIS HALLAM

In November 2008, with the news dominated by the election of Barack Obama, another news story could easily have slipped by unnoticed: Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton had died aged just 66.

As the man behind one of the biggest cinematic hits ever, Michael Crichton was a towering figure in every sense (he was 6ft 9). But he had a somewhat mixed record as both an author and of director of science fiction.

Michael Crichton wrote books, directed films based on his own books, directed films based on other people’s books, directed films not based on his or anyone else’s books and saw his own books adapted by other directors. Not all of the novels or directorial projects are of the type which piques Geeky Monkey’s interest: for example, neither Disclosure or Rising Sun fit into the sci-fi or fantasy bracket and so don’t expect them to be discussed much here. But whether good or bad, Crichton’s medical experience was always evident. Whether it was a version of one of his own books or one of his own original screenplays, it was as if Michael Crichton had injected himself into every frame.

The Andromeda Strain

Book (1969). Filmed: 1971, TV version: 2008

The danger that humanity may be threatened by an unstoppable outbreak of an incurable and fast spreading disease is sadly one of the more plausible apocalyptic scenarios. Crichton tackles this head on in his breakthrough novel, which centres on the aftermath of a space satellite’s return to Earth. It soon emerges that everyone in the surrounding Arizona area where the satellite has crashed down is dead, some of them having died in bizarre mysterious ways. A dispassionate scientific analysis begins: was the satellite harbouring a deadly microorganism?

Published when Crichton was still embarking on a medical career in his twenties (he apparently once overheard two senior doctors discussing his own book), The Andromeda Stain made Crichton a star. It achieves the difficult feat of being both scientifically credible and a compelling enjoyable read.

And, happily, the film wasn’t bad either. Directed by Robert Wise (the man behind the not very similar Sound of Music although he would later do the first Star Trek film), The Andromeda Strain was largely faithfully brought to the screen and was notable for its early use of special effects from 2001: A Space Odyssey wizard Douglas Trumbull. A modest box office hit, it is still very watchable and  became an influence on everything from Outbreak (1995) to Contagion (2011) the last of which saw an apocalyptic plague start after Gwyneth Paltrow shook hands with a chef who hadn’t washed his hands after some bats pooed on the food he was about to serve.

Sadly, a “reimagining” of the book staring Benjamin Bratt worked less well as a TV mini-series in 2008. A very loose adaptation indeed and very unmemorable: The Amnesia Strain might have been a better title.

The Terminal Man

Book: 1969. Film: 1974

The second Crichton sci-fi book to be adapted drew direct inspiration from his medical career:

“I saw a patient in a hospital who was being treated with electrodes implanted in the brain, hooked up to a monitoring computer,” Crichton later wrote.  “I thought this treatment was horrific and I was amazed that the research seemed to be going forward with no public discussion or even knowledge. I decided to write a novel to make such procedures better known.”

The experience (of a treatment which is now no longer carried out) provided the basis for The Terminal Man. The novel centres on one Harry Benson who undergoes a futuristic version of electronic brain implantation similar to that witnessed by Crichton to cure him of the epileptic seizures he has begun to experience since suffering injuries in a car accident. Benson soon becomes incredibly violent as a result. Critically well received as a book, despite receiving some criticism for linking epilepsy to violence, the film which starred George Segal is generally less well liked. Roy Pickard has argued (in the book Science Fiction At The Movies) that it is in some ways superior to anything in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Despite this, Crichton was aggrieved that he lost his role as director to Mike Hodges, the man who would later direct Flash Gordon (1980). Crichton later admitted that he liked The Terminal Man less than any other books.

Westworld

Filmed: 1973

Sequel: Futureworld (1976)

TV series: Beyond Westworld (1980)

HBO TV series due: 2016

Imagine a holiday in which you can sample the thrill of being in ancient Rome, medieval England or the Wild West. Peopled by robots, Delos, the holiday resort in Westworld, offers all of these things and more. Our heroes (played by Josh Brolin and Richard Benjamin) are drawn to the wild west sector where an android gunslinger played by Yul Brynner (wearing the same outfit he had earlier worn in the western, The Magnificent Seven) is obligingly shot down to please the tourists every day.

But then the robots start going wrong. Previously obliging medieval serving wenches become uppity and slap their clients (“My Lord forgets himself!”) while the robots all over the three worlds suddenly go into revolt, Brynner’s gunfighter becoming especially lethal…

Hands up if you jumped to Westworld in this feature straight away? If you did, we certainly don’t blame you. Westworld is Crichton’s most fun pre-Jurassic Park creation. It was the first film ever to use CGI (on a limited scale). It was also the first to demonstrate Crichton’s talent for imagining futuristic theme parks and then have them go horribly wrong.

Indeed, there is an element of the Jurassic Park issue here – scientists have used technology which they don’t really understand leading to an ultimately deadly environment. As one Delos scientist explains: “We aren’t dealing with ordinary machines here. These are highly complicated pieces of equipment, almost as complicated as living organisms. In some cases, they’ve been designed by other computers. We don’t know exactly how they work.”

Crichton originally conceived Westworld as a novel but ended up writing it as a screenplay and directing it as a film where it soon enjoyed success. Crichton had nothing to do with the 1976 sequel Futureworld starring Peter Fonda which lazily attempted to recreate the formula of the original on a larger scale even featuring Brynner’s gunfighter only in a rather pointless dream sequence. The 1980 TV series Beyond Westworld was a flop too. Featuring a plot to use the androids of Delos to take over the world, the show was canned after only three out of five episodes had been aired.

The new HBO series Westworld due out later this year looks much more promising, however, not only in terms of cast  (it features the distinguished likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, James Marsden and Jeffrey Wright) but in terms of depth.

Judging by the trailer, the new series not only promises to explore the three worlds of Delos in greater detail but promises to be a dark intelligent affair featuring Blade Runner style mediations on the nature of existence. If the series lives up to the promise of the trailer, it seems likely Crichton himself would have approved.

Congo

Book: 1980

Filmed: 1995

Apes have a difficult legacy on film. For every King Kong (1933), there’s a King Kong (1976). For every Planet of the Apes (1968), there’s a Planet of the Apes (2001).

Congo sadly slips into the “awful” category thanks largely to some terrible acting performances from Tim Curry and Ghostbusters’ Ernie Hudson, but also because, in common with the aforementioned Dino de Laurentiis King Kong remake and, indeed, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), it is rendered ridiculous by the use of silly looking gorilla costumes. This was just about acceptable when Planet of the Apes came out in 1968 but was already pushing it a vit, in the 70s and 80s when King Kong and Greystoke used them. By 1995, soon after the release of Crichton’s own CGI-filled Jurassic Park, it looked completely absurd.

Congo, is in truth, not one of Crichton’s better books anyway. After a series of mysterious deaths occurs in the Congo, an expedition is sent out which discovers a dangerous race of hyper-intelligent human-gorilla hybrids. Although definitely science fiction, Crichton attempted to inject some of the feel of the 19th century adventure story like H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines or Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (a name Crichton would consciously poach later).

Crichton actually sold the film rights in 1979 before completing the book and was optimistic about Sean Connery being cast. But the film didn’t end up being made until Crichton’s post-Jurassic boom period and Connery didn’t appear.

CGI was briefly considered but ruled out. But in truth gorilla suits are only part of the problem with Frank Marshall’s frequently ridiculous film. It would have been all over the place anyway, good special effects or not.

But against all odds, Congo didn’t flop. It was a solid commercial hit.

Looker

Filmed: 1981

Perhaps the least remembered of any of Crichton’s film, some would argue that as a critical and commercial flop, Looker is best skipped over quickly. The film sees Albert Finney play a plastic surgeon who becomes suspicious after a series of already beautiful models approach him seeking minor and indeed apparently imperceptible physical alterations. He becomes even more intrigued after the models start being murdered and he finds himself under suspicion of killing them. What is going on and how are the sinister Digital Matrix research firm involved?

Though not a success, Looker deserves to be remembered for one reason at least: the film featured the first ever CGI human character. Filmsite.org’s Film Milestones in Visual and Special Effects explains:

“The visual effects in Michael Crichton’s high-tech science-fiction thriller featured the first CGI human character, model Cindy (Susan Dey of The Partridge Family fame).  Her digitization was visualized by a computer-generated simulation of her body being scanned – notably the first use of shaded 3D CGI in a feature film. Polygonal models obtained by digitizing a human body were used to render the effects.”

Not bad for 1981.

Runaway

Filmed: 1984

It is a well-known fact that actor Tom Selleck was forced to turn down the role of Indiana Jones due to his contractual obligations to the hit TV series Magnum P.I. Selleck’s disappointment at what might have been is only to understandable and obvious:  a number of subsequent films saw Selleck apparently trying to emulate Harrison Ford in Indy-type roles. Runaway, directed and written by Crichton, is quite different, however. On paper at least, Selleck seems to be emulating Ford in another film entirely: Blade Runner.

Selleck plays Sgt. Jack R. Ramsey, a police officer in a near future environment in which household robots have become commonplace. Aided by his enthusiastic young partner (played by Cynthia Rhodes), Ramsay is part of the “Runaways Unit” dealing with robots who have malfunctioned, known as “runaways”. Most of his work is quite mundane, until one day he finds himself investigating something that should be impossible: a robot who has broken his programming so dramatically that he has committed murder, having wiped out a whole family. What would Brian from Confuse.com say? It’s certainly enough to make Metal Mickey turn in his grave.

Runaway certainly isn’t terrible and perhaps the Blade Runner similarities are only superficial. In one respect, it is like Blade Runner, however: it flopped. And unlike Blade Runner, its reputation has not soared in the years since.

Sphere

Book: 1987

Filmed: 1998

“An adventure 65 million years in the making” would be the tagline for the film of Crichton’s biggest success Jurassic Park. And though none of Crichton’s works actually took that long to produce (obviously), many did have a long gestation period. Crichton began writing Sphere back when he was in his twenties, seeing it as a potential companion piece to The Andromeda Strain. As it turned out, he didn’t finish it until the late 80s, having basically got stuck, the film appearing a full decade after that.

Sphere begins from an intriguing premise with the discovery of a mysterious craft bobbing along at the bottom of the beautiful briny sea. A mystery begins: is the craft from Earth? Is it an alien ship from space? Or could it even have been sent back in time from hundreds of years in the future?

The book of Sphere was actually decent and with veteran director Barry Levinson (best known for Rainman) at the helm and a cast led by Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson (the last actor by then far more famous than he had been when he appeared in a supporting role in Jurassic Park five years before) the movie version really should have been the same.

Sadly, it was not to be: Sphere was fatally dull.

Rotten Tomatoes damned it thus: ”Sphere features an A-level cast working with B-grade material, with a story seen previously in superior science-fiction films.”

Sphere sank without trace to the bottom of the box office ocean.

Mid-life Crichton

As the 1980s neared their end, Crichton then in his late forties might have looked back on these years with some sense of disappointment. None of his books had been adapted into films during the decade, the three films he had directed himself during this period (Looker, Runaway and 1989’s non-science fiction Physical Evidence) were all failures and he would never direct any more films. Despite the novels Congo and Sphere, Crichton was still best known his 1970s work and he was clearly less successful than some younger emerging novelists like Stephen King and John Grisham .

But as a new decade dawned, Crichton’s life was about to change forever…

Jurassic Park

Book: 1990 Filmed: 1993

Jurassic Park: The Lost World

Book: 1995 Filmed: 1997

Steven Spielberg is famed for knowing what the public want before they even know it themselves. Whether it’s sharks, cute little aliens or heroic archaeologist cum adventurers, Spielberg has his fingers on the pulse of the film-going zeitgeist. He had known Michael Crichton since the seventies. When Crichton began talking about his latest unfinished novel about a theme park populated by resurrected dinosaurs, Spielberg was very interested. Recognising that CGI technology was at a point where it could bring Crichton’s vision brilliantly to life, he bought the rights.

The results almost speak for themselves.

As Gloria Hunniford famously put it, in Jurassic Park the special effects are so good “’you can’t tell where the fake dinosaurs end, and the real ones begin.” But the film is not just a special effects bonanza. Spielberg both took things away and added things to Crichton’s book and screenplay: a child being killed by a dinosaur early on was deemed too horrific, Attenborough’s creator Hammond is less sinister in the film than he was in the book, the famous shuddering glass of water in the first great tyrannosaurus rex scene is largely down to Spielberg’s masterful direction, not Crichton’s prose. But the book and the idea were Crichton’s and he deserved the millions he made from it.

Jurassic Park is the biggest grossing film of all time on its release worldwide and is currently the 21st on the list which is unadjusted for inflation, the only film which is over 20 years old to be in the current top 50. Jurassic World from 2015 is at number 4 (all these figures come courtesy of Box Office Mojo).

Or in other words, you have seen Jurassic Park, your dentist has seen Jurassic Park and anyone anywhere currently in your range of vision has seen Jurassic Park unless they are a baby, a dog or Audrey Hepburn in an advert on your TV.

Indeed, probably virtually everyone in your mobile phone address book has seen it. Don’t believe us? Call them now and check. Go on. We can wait.  We’ll still be here when you get back.

In 1994, Crichton achieved a first. Jurassic Park was number one at the box office, E. (which he had also created) was number one on US TV and Crichton’s novel Rising Sun (also made into a film soon after) was at the top spot in the book charts. Top of the book bestsellers, the TV ratings and the box office charts. No one has ever achieved this triple whammy  before or since. A very tall man anyway, Michael Crichton really did seem to stand astride the world like a colossus.

Little wonder he was soon under pressure to do a sequel. The Lost World Jurassic Park was Crichton’s first and only sequel and he made compromises: Jeff Goldblum’s Dr Ian Malcolm returns, for example, despite being killed off in the first book (but having survived the film). In truth, the sequel was far from Crichton’s best book and is probably one of Spielberg’s worst films. But it was a huge box office hit and two more films have appeared since.

Michael Crichton wrote many books in his last years, some of which (although only one more sci-fi book) were filmed. But creatively, he never scaled the heights of the Jurassic Park again.

Timeline

Book: 1999

Filmed: 2003

A truly rubbish film, it seems a shame to end with Timeline, a silly adventure based on Crichton’s enjoyable sci-fi thriller about a group of modern day scientists traveling back in time to 14th century France to rescue their professor.

Crichton’s final years saw him produce more science fiction. Prey (2002) is a thriller dealing with the threat posed by the creation of artificial life and nanobot technology. The rights have been bought by 20th Century Fox although Prey has never yet been filmed. State of Fear (2004) centres on a plot to commit mass murder by a gang of eco-terrorists. By this point, Crichton, now in his sixties, had nailed his colours firmly to the mast of those who like President George W. Bush were in total denial about the existence of climate change. Many felt Crichton’s promotion of his own views on this subject rather marred the novel.

Next is er… Next(2006)  which centres on the genetic experimentation on animals. It is, incidentally, nothing whatsoever to do with the Nicholas Cage sci-fi film Next of 2007 which was in fact based on a Philip K. Dick story. His final unfinished sci-fi work Micro (published posthumously in 2011) meanwhile is being planned as a film by Dreamworks.

Nearly eight years after he died, Crichton’s legacy is undeniably mixed with some huge successes and some epic failures. Some films based on his books were terrible as were some of the films he directed himself and indeed some of his own book were quite bad.

But with the Westworld and Jurassic franchises flourishing to this day, Crichton’s contribution to science fiction is undeniable. He wrote science fiction in the truest sense, using his medical expertise to inform hugely entertaining stories. And when at his best as in The Andromeda Strain, Westworld or Jurassic Park, Michael Crichton could be very entertaining indeed.

Box out: Also by Michael Crichton…

Michael Crichton didn’t just write and direct science fiction. Here are just some of the other many strings to his bow…

The young doctor?: A Harvard Medical School graduate, Crichton spent years on clinical rotation in hospitals but never formally gained a licence to practice medicine, choosing to write instead. He came to believe many patients took too little responsibility for their own health.

Weird science: He was sceptical about man-made climate change or global warming. but was interested in aura viewing and clairvoyance.

Tall stories: He wrote some early books under the pen names Jeffery Hudson and John Lange (“lange” is the German word for “long”: Crichton, as mentioned, was very tall). Michael also wrote a book with his brother Douglas under the name “Michael Douglas” in 1970. By coincidence, the now famous actor Michael Douglas (who had still largely been unknown in 1970) would later star in Coma (1978), a medical thriller directed by Michael Crichton as well as Disclosure (1994), a controversial film based on Crichton’s bestselling novel.

Twister (1996): Crichton co-wrote the screenplay for the tornado-based drama starring Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt. He was aided by his then wife Anne-Marie Martin (he married five times). The film was the second biggest grossing film of 1996 and certainly the biggest grossing film of that year which didn’t feature Will Smith repelling an alien invasion.

TV star: In 1994, Crichton created and produced the medical TV drama ER. He only wrote the first episode basing it on a script he’d first written in 1974. He effectively launched a show which would last until 2009.

Dr Who?: The name “Dr Ross” appears at least four times in Crichton’s writing. Most famous is Dr Doug Ross the role which made George Clooney’s name in ER. In Congo (1980), the main expedition to uncover the cause of the mysterious deaths is led by Dr Karen Ross (she is played by Laura Linney in the film). Both the book and film of The Terminal Man (1972/1974) feature Dr Janet Ross, Benson’s attractive psychiatrist (Joan Hackett).  In Zero Cool (1969), an early Crichton book (written as John Lange), Dr Peter Ross is a radiologist and the main character.

Other big non-sci-fi successes for Crichton were The Great Train Robbery (1975) filmed by Crichton himself as The First Great Train Robbery (1979) starring Sean Connery  and Rising Sun (1992) and Disclosure (1994), both later made into films, the former also starring Connery.

The 13th Warrior (1999) starring Antonio Banderas is based on Crichton’s 1976 novel Eaters of the Dead (1976). Crichton himself took over the reins as director uncredited from onetime Die Hard director John McTiernan when the film ran into trouble. But he still could not stop it from becoming one of the biggest cinematic flops ever made.

CHRIS HALLAM