Neighbours: The final goodbye…

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

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

Book review: Birdman and Chicken

They wouldn’t call a children’s comic, Krazy, these days. But in 1976, they did. And for 79 fun-filled issues, the short-lived British comic which played host to the Krazy Gang, Cheeky, Pongo Snodgrass and Hit Kid was genuinely one of the funniest and most anarchic titles around.
One particular highlight was Trevor Metcalfe’s Batman spoof, Birdman & Chicken AKA Dick Lane and Mick Mason AKA The Krazy Crusaders. in many ways, a forerunner to Bananaman which made its first appearance in DC Thomson’s Nutty very soon afterwards, every one of the hapless avian superhero duo’s adventures against foes as diverse as The Giggler, Dr .Doom, Sour-Puss, The Puzzler and The Tremble Twins. The stories begin in full colour but end up in black and white.
A particular highlight is Metcalfe’s penchant for alliterative captions particularly when producing one of the story’s many cliff-hangers, for example, “Will the ruthless rogue really wreck our rash raiders on the rocks?” or “Next week – our superstars search for a scheming scalliwag – the Scarecrow!”
In short: over forty years old, but still lots of fun.

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: 2000 AD Encyclopedia, by Scott Montgomery

“Borag thungg, Earthlets!”

(i.e. “Hello”),

The year 2022 marks the 45th birthday of 2000AD.. And let’s clear up any confusion from the start: this refers to the popular weekly science fiction comic, 2000AD (which started in 1977) as opposed to the actual year, 2000AD (which started in the year 2000). I hope that’s clear.

Back in the pre-Star Wars, halcyon days of 1977, 2000AD burst onto the nation’s newspaper shelves, transforming the world of British comics forever. Over the next 2,000 or so issues (or progs, as they are known in 2000AD-world), tens of thousands of pages of sci-fi and fantasy featuring everything from Mega-City lawman, Judge Dredd (“I am the law!”), eternal warrior of Nu Earth Rogue Trooper, intergalactic Hoop girl, Halo Jones, mysterious alien weirdo Nemesis and his deadly human foe Torquemada (“be pure, be vigilant, behave!”), so-called “Celtic Conan”, Slaine, master of the Warp Spasm (“and he didn’t think it too many”) and countless other thrills, all courtesy of editor of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, Tharg the Mighty have appeared and indeed continues to do so today.

And now, in the highly unlikely event you’ve missed anything, this new, comprehensive, fully illustrated new encyclopaedia is here to get you fully up-to-speed. covering everything from Ace Trucking Company to Zippy Couriers, from Anderson PSI to Zenith.

So, if you don’t know your Ro-Busters from your Robohunters, your Wulf Sternhammers from your Wolfie Smiths, your Joe Dredds from your Joe Pineapples or your Gronks from your Grobbendonks, then this is the perfect book for you..

Splundig Vur Thrigg, Earthlets!

(In other words: “goodbye”).

Book review: Guillermo Del Toro – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, by Ian Nathan

This week saw Guillermo del Toro’s latest film, Nightmare Alley receive an Academy award nomination for Best Picture. An opportune moment then to reflect on the Mexican director’s quarter century or so as one of the most visually creative filmmakers around. British film writer Ian Nathan has focused on a number of the world’s most interesting movie men in these beautifully presented and intelligent coffee table books before for example,. Quentin Tarantino, the Coens and Tim Burton (all reviewed in the past on here). Now del Toro, the man behind Pan’s Labyrinth and the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water gets similar treatment. Published late in 2021, there is only a little about Nightmare Alley and the forthcoming Pinocchio which del Toro has produced for Netf;ix here yet but his full body of work to date is otherwise covered thoroughly.

Del Toro’s career has thus far been characterised by an impressive fusion of fantasy and horror. Sometimes this results in commercial but usually interesting films like Blade II, the first two Hellboy films and science fiction beat ’em up, Pacific Rim. On other occasions, it has led to other intriguing offerings such as post-Spanish Civil War ghost story, The Devil’s Backbone and perhaps his two most famous films, Pan’s Labyrinth and aquatic monster movie, The Shape of Water. Although less obviously box office friendly on paper, these have captivated large audiences too.

Filled with visually arresting images from del Toro’s career, this is yet another fascinating insight from Ian Nathan into the life and work of one of the early 21st century’s most imaginative and innovative filmmakers.

Guillermo Del Toro – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, by Ian Nathan. Published by: White Lion Publishing. 2021.

Book review: The Real Kenneth Grahame, by Elisabeth Galvin

The story of the man behind the Edwardian children's classic, The Wind in the Willows could be told in a number of different ways. On the one hand, it is the tale of an incredibly talented man, a huge success as both a freelance writer and in his day job at the Bank of England who not only, by all accounts, provided excellent company to everyone he encountered, be they old or young but who somehow never lost that sense of what it was like to be a child, enabling him, quite magically, in middle-age, to create one of the greatest children's books ever written.
But, on the other hand, it is a very sad story indeed. It is the tale of a man who never recovered from the trauma of his mother's death during his childhood. This tragedy, coupled with the shock of his alcoholic father's decision to completely abandon his young family, arguably stunted Kenneth Grahame's development, leaving him permanently frozen in a juvenile state: sexually confused, unable to be a successful husband and a tragic failure as a father.
Elizabeth Galvin's account of the life of the man who created Ratty, Moley, Badger and Toad of Toad Hall brings Grahame's world vividly to life.
Published by: White Owl.

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.

Audiobook review: This Much Is True, by Miriam Margolyes

The term “national treasure” is often bandied around a bit loosely these days. But make no mistake: at eighty, the actress Miriam’ Margolyes is undeniably worthy of the title. As this audiobook version of her autobiography confirms, she is a funny, sensitive and intelligent woman who has led a rich, eventful and rewarding life.

What is she actually most famous for? Well, as she herself admits, when the final curtain eventually falls, many tributes will begin by mentioning that she played Professor of Herbology, Pomora Sprout in two of the Harry Potter films. It is a small role in a star-studded saga which only came to Miriam as she entered her sixties, but such is the nature of the hugely successful franchise that virtually everyone who appeared in them, be they Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith or Robbie Coltrane, is automatically more famous for that than for anything else almost regardless of how busy or successful their career may otherwise have been. As she is not a fan of the series (she has not read any of the books nor seen any of the films, including either of the ones she is in herself) and does not like science fiction or fantasy, she admits this slightly grudgingly although she remains grateful as ever for the work and for being a small part of a story that means so much to so many people and will doubtless continue to be watched for many decades to come.

She has been astonishingly prolific though working consistently on stage, radio, TV and film since she left Cambridge University nearly sixty years’ ago. The Internet Movie Database credits her with 188 roles and while many of these were bit parts or voice only roles but this doesn’t even touch on the numerous radio, theatre and voiceover performances she has delivered and she discusses many of them here. This is a long book but even she cannot mention everything. In 2006, for example, she appeared as Mrs. Midge In one episode of the French and Saunders sitcom, Jam & Jerusalem and provided voices for the characters, Mrs Ashtrakhan and Rita’s Grandma in the high-profile animated films Happy Feet and Flushed Away. But I don’t think any of these roles are mentioned in this autobiography.

She had a run of 1990s Hollywood success. She was the nurse in Baz Luhmann’s Romeo + Juliet, probably the most successful Shakespeare film adaptation ever made. Oddly, one of her abiding memories of this is how smelly the young star, Leonardo DiCaprio was. She was the voice of Fly, the female sheepdog in both the Babe films. She won a BAFTA for her role as Mrs. Mingott in Martin Scorsese’s Age of Innocence.

We have all probably seen and heard her in far more things than we realise. She was one of the most high-profile voiceover actresses of the 1980s. She was the voice of the sexy cartoon bunny on the Cadbury’s Caramel adverts (“Take it easy with Cadbury’s Caramel”). She vividly recreates her sexually suggestive vocal performance on one 1970s tobacco advert. She dubbed most of the female voices for the cult 1970s series, Monkey. I personally remember her first from watching the brilliant Blackadder II in which she played Edmund’s puritanical aunt, Lady Whiteadder (a character who, Margolyes relates, seems to have a curious effect on a certain breed of middle-aged man). I also once saw her on stage in a production of She Stoops To Conquer alongside an unlikely combination of Sir Donald Sinden and David Essex.

But the book’s not all about her career. Margolyes talks seriously and honestly about many things. She talks about her parents, her childhood in Oxford, her university days, her being Jewish, her lesbianism, her pain and regret about her experience of ‘coming out’ to her parents and her lifelong unhappiness with her own appearance. As the name of the book suggests, she is always very honest. She acknowledges her successes (she is especially proud of her one-woman show, Dickens’ Women in which she played a huge number of roles) but admits to her failures both major (cheating on her partner of fifty years) and minor (overreacting to a parking ticket or embarrassing herself when meeting the Queen).

Readers should perhaps be warned about her numerous sexual exploits and perhaps still more surprisingly, her eagerness to discuss them. Although a lesbian, a remarkable number of her anecdotes end with the phrase “and then I sucked him off.” This will doubtless offend some readers or listeners and amuse many more.

In fact, you could actually get very drunk playing a Miriam Margoyles Drinking Game imbibing every time the phrase “sucked off” comes up. Although too her credit, you would get drunker still if you downed a shot every time she ends a description of someone she has met during her life with some variation on the phrase “we remain friends and are still in touch to this day” or “we remained friends until they died.” She values friendship highly and has made and remained friends with many people. She says she has nearly 12,000 names in her phone book and clearly relished getting in touch with many of them to help her remember many of the events detailed in this narrative.

This, of course, suggests she is pleasant and easy to work with. It also adds credibility to her testimony against those who she does dislike who she condemns vigorously. She was treated very badly by Glenda Jackson during a union dispute during a disastrous stage production in the 1970s, singles out the late Terry Scott as a truly awful person and is venomous about the blatant sexism displayed by many of the future Goodies and Monty Pythom team at Footlights during the 1960s.

Some people still don’t like her today, of course, for a variety of reasons namely because she is a woman who talks freely about her sexuality, because she is a lesbian, because she holds left-wing views, because she holds left-wing views but has criticized Jeremy Corbyn’s support for Brexit and failure to tackle anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, because she is Jewish and yet has condemned Israel’s brutal treatment of the Palestinians, because she is Jewish full stop, because she is a woman who speaks her mind freely and honestly, because she is an old woman or simply because she is a woman.

This book is not for them. For the rest of us this is a golden opportunity to enjoy a well-told story, which is honest, moving and often very funny about a rich life lived to the full.

TV review: American Crime Story – Impeachment

This ten-episode drama from 2021 makes up the third instalment in the American Crime Story series. All three have been based on real life high profile criminal cases from the recent history of the U.S.

The first of these, The People Vs OJ Simpson (2016) was thoroughly absorbing and had me completely gripped throughout. I must admit I have not seen the second story, The Assassination of Gianni Versace (2018). This one centres on the 1998 White House sex scandal which culminated in the impeachment of U.S President Bill Clinton, a scandal often rather unfairly labelled ‘the Monica Lewinsky Affair.’

And it must be said, the choice of subject matter is something of a problem from the outset. While undeniably a huge scandal, the Lewinsky Affair always rather suffered from not really having any real central crime at its core. While I would not condone Clinton’s behaviour at the time, it was not criminal in the way Nixon’s behaviour during Watergate was, or in the way the Iran-Contra affair was during the Reagan administration. It is a poor choice for an anthology titled ‘American Crime Story’: it is not entirely clear even now if any serious crimes were ever committed. This was certainly not true in the cases of either Simpson or Versace. Viewers today might find it amazing that in age before the War on Terror or the current COVID-19 pandemic, so much time, effort, money and attention was wasted on establishing the exact nature of the sexual relationship between a president and his intern. The scandal only continued because of the determination of Clinton’s enemies to blacken his name and discredit his administration. To some extent, they succeeded. But the scandal often felt needlessly voyeuristic and pointless. And seeing it all played out again here, often feels the same way.

Nobody did well out of the scandal. It is a story of victims.

Monica Lewinsky was one victim. Today, unmarried and at 48, even now still younger than Bill Clinton was when he first encountered her, she not only suffered tremendous harassment and a media furore at the time, but seems destined forever to be associated with certain sex acts in a scandal which has always been named after her, rather than the chief instigator of it, i.e. Bill Clinton. Beanie Feldstein’s central performance as her is the strongest in the entire drama.

Then there is Linda Tripp, Lewinsky’s former friend. With her dowdy, unfashionable middle-aged appearance and conservative political views, Tripp is an easy figure to demonise. And yes, she did behave very badly indeed, betraying her young ‘friend’ by tape recording their phone conversations, later publicly defending these reprehensible actions by claiming she did them out of a sense of patriotic duty, but, in practice, always with one eye on a potential lucrative book deal. But Tripp more than suffered for her sins. She saw herself impersonated by John Goodman in drag on Saturday Night Live. She died in 2020, before she would have had the chance to see herself portrayed by an unrecognisable Sarah Paulson in this. Although a good performance, Paulson has expressed regret about wearing a fat suit for the role.

Another victim? Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) whose initial allegations triggered the whole scandal in the first place. With none of the financial security or familial support, Monica Lewinsky at least received, Paula came off worse than most.

Probably its stretching things to describe Bill Clinton as a victim here but both he and Hillary suffered terrible public humiliation.. British actor, Clive Owen does a fine impression of the 42nd president although as with Sarah Paulson, he has been rendered entirely unrecognisable by make-up. The always excellent Edie Falco (of The Sopranos) plays Hillary. In retrospect, the scandal may well have guaranteed her status as a future presidential candidate while simultaneously ensuring she would never actually win the presidency itself, something which continues to have disastrous consequences both for the USA and the wider world to this day.

Of course, it’s certainly going too far to suggest the assorted legion of cranks and right-wingers who kept the scandal alive could really claim ‘victim’ status either. In the short run, they failed in their objectives: had Bill Clinton been able and willing to seek a third term in the year 2000, he would probably have won it. But in the long run, his otherwise successful presidency was tarnished by an unnecessary and tawdry scandal.

Much of the casting is interesting. Colin Hanks is good as ever as agent Mike Emmick while sitcom star Cobie Smulders is suitably malevolent as conservative battle-axe Ann Coulter. Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, whose own promising film career in the 1990s was wrecked after she resisted the advances of the abusive producer, Harvey Weinstein plays Monica Lewinsky’s well-intentioned and well-to-do mother. Jim Rash, Margo Martindale and Blair Underwood also make welcome appearances throughout the drama.

But, overall, despite some excellent performances, a few dodgy wigs and outfits too often contribute to a sense that this is almost as sleazy and unnecessary as the original scandal itself.

And while ‘impeachment’ was a popular buzzword in 2021: disgraced former US President Donald Trump had after all just been impeached for a second time, thus making him responsible for half of all presidential impeachments in 232 years of US presidential history, it was a poor choice of title in this case. The processes of Bill Clinton’s actual impeachment barely feature in the narrative at all.

Book review: Fight! – Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, by Harry Hill

The pandemic has turned many comedians into authors.

It’s perfectly understandable. With many of the usual avenues of expression closed off to them, the lockdowns have provided a golden opportunity for many comics with a story to tell to finally put their words on paper. For many, it was either that or start a podcast. Little wonder then that, the Christmas 2021 books market is overflowing with comedy biographies. Harry Hill’s new autobiography is a weightier tome than his previous literary works, Harry Hill’s Whopping Great Joke Book, Harry Hill’s Fun Book or Harry Hill’s Bumper Book of Bloopers. But Fight! is a great read and I’d actually rank it alongside Bob Mortimer’s …And Away! as one of the very best comedy-themed books of the year.

As Harry himself admits, however, he is not for everyone. Chris Tarrant and Keeley Hawes are amongst those famous names who Harry has encountered who have not taken to his unique sense of humour. I myself have often been amazed how even during the long reign of Harry Hill’s TV Burp as one of the most consistently funny shows on British TV of the 2000s, a surprising number of people, many of whom I would have otherwise said had a good sense of humour suddenly became insufferably snooty whenever Harry’s name was mentioned. If you are one of those people, chances are, neither this book or even this review will be for you. Kindly go elsewhere.

For the rest of us, this is a treat, often funny, particularly in its early stages and revealing. Harry, after all, has a story to tell.

Today, with his winged collar, NHS spectacles and distinctly eccentric appearance, Harry Hill’s comic persona although well-established is hard to define. He looks like a middle-aged Bash Street Kid. Back in the 1970s, he was Matthew Hall, a bright young teenager busily engaged in developing smoke bombs and other homemade explosives with his other bored, science-obsessed school friends in rural Kent. “My interest in science was largely a by-product of pyromania” he admits now but it led directly to a medical career, something he abandoned only in the early 1990s as his love for performing live comedy took over. As Harry himself might reflect, “what were the chances of that happening eh?”

His accounts of his medical career make fascinating reading. Although he does not seem to be one of those comedians with an obvious dark side, his experiences as a doctor (including an excruciating sequence in which he makes a hash of informing a young husband that his wife had died unexpectedly) along with the premature deaths of a number of his old friends have obviously given him an appreciation of the fact life his short.

He has also clearly retained a treasure trove of memories and physical relics of his comedy career. It is interesting to learn that he often collaborated with the likes of Alastair McGowan and Stewart Lee in the 1990s: not names one would obviously associate with him now. By the end of the decade, he was a familiar face on Channel 4. Between 2001 and 2012, he enjoyed his biggest ever success with over 160 episodes of ITV’s Saturday evening “sideways look at the week’s television,” TV Burp. The build-up to the show’s commercial breaks during which a staged fight between two often very surreal rivals, incidentally, explains the book’s title. Such showdowns included; “the Archbishop of Canterbury versus the Footballers’ Wives,” “a paw versus a claw” and “who is the best vegetarian: Heather Mills or Hitler?” During the last of these skirmishes, Harry can be clearly heard shouting, “come on, Hitler!”

In the end, the strain of trawling through hours of often terrible TV to find a few nuggets of comedy gold proved too much for Harry and the other writers and the show ended. Nothing else he has done has ever proven quite as successful. Harry proves unafraid to mention his lesser successes, which include Alien Fun Capsule (essentially a less popular version of TV Burp), Harry Hill’s Tea Time (an enjoyable but little seen Sky One show) or the fun but not especially commercial 2013 Harry Hill Movie featuring Julie Walters, Sheridan Smith and pop rock band, The Magic Numbers.

He also does not shy away from mentioning his few outright failures either: these include his short-lived X-Factor-themed musical, I Can’t Sing and disastrous stints presenting Capital Radio, an attempt to revive Matthew Kelly’s Stars In Their Eyes or the filming of a never-aired pilot of an unpromising Beadle’s About style prank show.. That said, his failure to mention anything about the character Professor Branestawm or his sixteen series narrating home video clips show, You’ve Been Framed! (as far as I noticed anyway) is more surprising, however, particularly as neither of these were obvious failures. He’s has a busy life: perhaps he just forgot to mention them?

Ultimately, it is a book and a career to be proud of. Now 57, what does the future hold for the onetime Doctor Matthew Hall?

Well, there’s only one way to find out…

Book review: Fight! – Thirty Years Not Quite At The Top, by Harry Hill. Published by: Hodder Studio. Available: now.

Book review: Jimmy Carr – Before & Laughter

The cover of Jimmy Carr’s book (or at least, the cover on the edition I have) shows Jimmy Carr symbolically removing a depressed version of his own face, revealing the more familiar, grinning version of the comedian underneath. The picture illustrates a central theme of the book: how twenty-two years ago, Jimmy transformed himself by abandoning his well-paid but unsatisfactory marketing job at Shell, ultimately becoming the very successful comedian and TV personality we all know today. Carr became, he argues, a much happier person as a result. Here, he argues, you can do the same, not necessarily by becoming a stand-up comedian (a career move which obviously wouldn’t suit everyone) but by identifying what you really want from life and going for it.

In many ways, the cover image would would work just as well if the two faces were reversed. For while the book is by no means deadly serious (on the contrary, there are lots of jokes throughout) this is Jimmy Carr, the host of 8 Out of 10 Cats with a silly laugh, revealing the more serious version of himself. The funny-man is revealing the more serious man behind the mask, not the other way round.

It should be a good read. Whether you personally like him or not, Jimmy Carr is a very clever and successful man with an interesting story to tell. He is perhaps not quite as funny on the page as he is as a performer, but he is not far off it.

Some of the publicity for this book describes it as Carr’s “first autobiography”. It isn’t. And this is the problem. When Carr does open up about his personal life and about his occasional struggles with mental health: his grief over the death of his mother, his hatred for his estranged father, the details of how he established his comedy career, his struggles with dyslexia, his panic attacks on stage, the book is very interesting. But this only goes so far. We learn very little about his childhood or about why he fell out with his father. There is nothing about his recent hair transplant. The book actually takes the form of a self-help book. A self-help book filled with quotations from other people, jokes, swearing and anecdotes from Carr’s own life.

Being a self-help book is not in itself a problem. Jimmy Carr has had a successful life and he wants to help others to be successful too. This is perfectly commendable.

The problem is that while some of his advice is useful much of it sounds like meaningless guff regurgitated from a thousand therapy sessions. He often spends a lot of time saying a lot which amounts to very little. Carr has done well in life and has worked hard for it. Fair enough. But he is almost evangelical in his conviction that his own formula for success can be easily transposed to everyone else.

“No one can beat you at being you…Look at society and ask ‘what am I bringing to the party?…Makes your own choices, just don’t not think about it…You can have anything, but you can’t have everything…When you win, you win, but you lose you learn.” It is often difficult to square banal platitudes such as this with the more cynical persona Jimmy Carr projects on stage and on TV.

In truth, of course, it is just that: a persona. As with other darker comics such as Frankie Boyle, Carr jokes about disability, incest and rape. But this is not him. It is humour and designed to shock.

Even so, I suspect he has a few ethical blind spots. He includes ‘climate change’ on a list of things which we should not worry about as we have no control over them. The arguments in defence of some of his more controversial jokes do not really stand up to scrutiny. He knows better than to attempt to defend his involvement in a tax avoidance scheme before 2012. The scandal came close to destroying his career and he has now paid back all the money he owed. But he has never really explained why he thought it was okay in the first place.

Despite all this, I like Jimmy Carr. I have seen him live and have interviewed him once. Over the last twenty years, he has been one of our best and most consistent comedians. A great biography will probably be published about him one day. But I suspect it won’t be written by him.

Book review: Jimmy Carr – Before & Laughter. A Life-Changing Book. Published by: Quercus Publishing.

The Seven Ages of Doctor Who

Written by: Chris Hallam. Originally published in Geeky Monkey magazine in 2017…

Fifty-three years. Thirty-five series. 827 episodes. Twelve Doctors. Doctor Who is a phenomenon without equal in TV or science fiction. Yet with series 10 and a new Doctor the way following news of the planned departure of Peter Capaldi at Christmas, is it still possible to put the show into some sort of perspective or is it doomed like the TARDIS to forever escape our comprehension? Join Chris Hallam as he explores… 

The 7 Ages of Doctor Who…

Doctor Who is like nothing else on Earth.

In the UK, it remains the eighth longest series of all time rubbing shoulders with the likes of Coronation Street, The Sky At Night and Blue Peter. It is one of only a dozen or so programmes still showing to be old enough to have once been in black and white.

But in the realm of science fiction it is truly a world beater. Nothing else comes close to it in terms of longevity. Not Stargate, not Red Dwarf, not even Star Trek. Even if you collect all the different Star Trek series together and add them up (already an unfair comparison really) then Doctor Who still wins, in terms of both episodes and the span of time it’s been on. So if you think watching The OA on Netflix was a bit of a long haul recently, this should hopefully put things into perspective. It’s as if The OA was still on in 2069.

Science fiction isn’t really supposed to be like this, of course. Although in theory it should be more timeless than other genres, somehow it rarely seems to work out that way. It’s hard to imagine Blake’s 7 lasting into the 21st century, for example or Lost In Space even lasting into the Eighties. Most science fiction reflects its own times very strongly. Doctor Who owes its survival to a formula which ensures it can survive an ever-changing cast, its success in reviving itself after a sixteen-year hiatus and its evolution over the decades.

The history of the series so far can be divided into seven distinct phases…

THE FIRST AGE: GENESIS: 1963-1970

Star Trek had Gene Roddenberry. Star Wars had George Lucas. Harry Potter, JK Rowling. But there is no equivalent figure for the creation of Doctor Who.

The series emerged partly from a desire to fill the gap in BBC schedules on Saturday evenings, bridging the void between the end of Grandstand and the start of the then popular Juke Box Jury. But there was much more to it than that. it also formed the culmination of a collective effort to provide an ambitious new science fiction programme for the channel, following in the footsteps of Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass series in the 1950s and other experimental shows like A For Andromeda (1961). The new series would be more ambitious and longer running than either.

A group effort it may have been but certain individuals certainly deserve credit for Doctor Who notably the Head of TV Drama, Sydney Newman described by author James Chapman as “the most important single figure in the history of the history of the golden age of television in Britain”. Another was producer, Verity Lambert who was keen to ensure that Doctor Who would be more than just a kids’ show from the start. It was Lambert who chose William Hartnell, the star of the first Carry On film Carry On Sergeant and a familiar figure from TV sitcom The Army Game as the Doctor. The first episode was broadcast, coincidentally, on the day after President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.

To a modern viewer, only the title, the basic theme tune, the TARDIS and the presence of a character named “the Doctor” would link the first episode to the current series in any way.

Four basic factors partly explain why Doctor Who has endured for so long. For one thing, the original creators were ingenious enough to make the basic premise sufficiently vague to allow future writers plenty of leigh-way to develop it further. The Doctor himself, for example was initially described as:

“A frail old man lost in space and time. They give him the name because they don’t know who he is…he is searching for something as well as fleeing from something. He has a ‘machine’ which enables them to travel through time, through space and through matter.”

A second key factor was the creation of the Daleks. Their immense popularity from their first appearance in 1964 ensured the series a place in the national psyche. The Doctor’s battles with the Daleks also enabled his character and the series to develop in unforeseen ways.

Another essential element was the introduction of the Doctor’s ever-changing companions – several, at first, but generally only one at a time from the 1970s onwards – which kept the format fresh.

But crucially it was the Doctor’s ability to occasionally renew himself (the term “regeneration” was not used initially) which enabled the series to survive Hartnell’s decision to retire on health grounds in 1966. “This old body of mine is wearing a bit thin,” Hartnell’s Doctor uttered shortly before collapsing onto the floor of the TARDIS and beginning a dramatic transformation. Sadly, as with many other episodes from the period, the actual episode has been wiped by the BBC. Thankfully, this crucial sequence has survived.

The younger Patrick Troughton brought humour to the role and was clearly a very different figure from his predecessor. Indeed, Newman characterised The Second Doctor as a “cosmic hobo”. The Troughton era would be characterised by a more diverse range of monsters (including the Cybermen, Yeti and Warriors). But it was the idea of regeneration – initially conceived as a stop gap measure to deal with a series crisis – which ensured that the show could still survive when an overworked Troughton himself gave way to Jon Pertwee in 1970.

THE SECOND AGE: THE GOLDEN ERA 1970-1980

The 1970s was ultimately to prove to be the heyday of Doctor Who. The year 1970 itself indeed saw many crucial changes.

First, there was the new Doctor himself. Although traditionally associated with comedic roles up until that point (he had starred in radio’s The Navy Lark and came very close to being cast as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army), Jon Pertwee took a decision early on to play the Doctor straight, distinguishing himself from Patrick Troughton’s more comedic approach immediately.

There were other changes. Pertwee was to be the first Doctor to have only one companion at a time: Katy Manning followed by Elisabeth Sladen. The series would also be broadcast in colour for the first time.

Finally, and crucially, following the Second Doctor’s trial by the Time Lords, Pertwee’s Doctor spent much of his entire tenure banished to exile on 20th century Earth as punishment for his violation of non-intervention laws. This is often cynically seen as a budgetary measure by the BBC. In fact, budgets rose for the series under Pertwee. Despite concerns that the Earth-bound setting might make the series resemble a 1970s version of Quatermass, the Pertwee Era (1970-74) is generally remembered with affection by fans.

Then came Tom Baker. The most eccentric of the Doctors, Baker’s relative youth and bohemian eternal student appearance raised eyebrows at first. In time, he would become the most enduring, the most popular and the most internationally recognised Doctor Who. His seven-year tenure (1974-81) witnessed a classic era for the series.

It is unusual for a series in its sixteenth year to be at its peak, indeed statistically after 16 years, most TV programmes are not only finished but long forgotten. But despite a growing Mary Whitehouse-led campaign concerning levels of violence within the series, such was the case with Doctor Who in 1979.  Ratings were generally as high as nine to eleven million, peaking at 16.1 million for the final episode of City of Death in 1979. Admittedly, this was during a strike which had shut down production at ITV but even so, this remains an all-time high for the series. Critically, the show was doing well too, partly due to the contribution of talented young writers like Douglas Adams. Doctor Who was at a high.

Clearly, the only way was down.

THE THIRD AGE: FALLING SLOWLY 1980-1984

At just thirty, Peter Davison was already a likeable and familiar face to audiences having appeared in All Creatures Great and Small amongst other things and cameoing as the Dish of the Day in the 1982 TV version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy during his time as the Doctor. He nevertheless had a tough act to follow. The scripts reflect this insecurity; for example, on spying his new reflection the Doctor muses: “well, I suppose I’ll get used to in time.”

It is sad then, that the Davison era is associated with the beginning of a steep ratings decline which ultimately ended in the shows cancellation in 1989. This probably wasn’t Davison’s fault. Viewing figures had actually began to fall during Tom Baker’s last year, perhaps in response to radical changes introduced by flamboyant new producer John Nathan-Turner after 1980. These included a new heavily synthesized version of the familiar theme tune, new stylised costumes for the Doctors and updated filming techniques.

Fans generally welcomed the changes and Nathan-Turner was arguably only combatting an inevitable post-Star Wars decline for the series anyway; both budgets and expectations had suddenly risen dramatically. But whatever the truth: ratings did fall. Davison’s first series averaged only 5.8 million viewers with one episode dropping to 3.7 million: an all-time low for any Doctor Who episode up until that point.

Although in general Davison (now father-in-law to the Tenth Doctor David Tennant) is remembered fondly.

THE FOURTH AGE: DECLINE AND FALL 1984-1989

Who killed Doctor Who?

On the face of it, Michael (now Lord) Grade, the former head of BBC programming has often been happy to play the role of the biggest bogeyman in this story.

“The show was ghastly. It was pathetic,” he has said. “It just got more and more violent…it was just horrible to watch. It lost its way… I cancelled it. It was absolutely the right decision at the time.”

Grade indeed is right to take responsibility for the ultimate decision to pull the plug. But even ignoring his animus, there were other factors too.  Ratings were now typically as low as four or five million and the show was becoming overly self-referential, appealing to its hardcore of fans but alienating everyone else. Attempts to attract publicity through unusual casting decisions such as Richard Briers and Alexei Sayle did not always help.

History has not been kind to the Sixth Doctor and in truth Colin Baker was dealt a rotten hand during his stint between 1984 and 1986 with most of this time spent in a period of enforced 18-month hiatus imposed by Grade. Baker’s spell as the Doctor ended acrimoniously, with the effect that the now traditional regeneration sequence had to be filmed without him.

Always vulnerable to the charge of being “just a children’s programme,” some scepticism met news of the appointment of Sylvester McCoy, an actor then primarily known for roles on kids’ TV (such as the Horrible Histories forerunner Eureka!) to succeed Colin Baker. In truth, McCoy soon warmed to the role helped (after a brief unhappy pairing with scream queen Bonnie Langford) by an especially able companion Ace (real name Dorothy) played by Sophie Aldred who had “been written with a greater sensitivity and subtlety than had usually been afforded by the role of companion” according to James Chapman in his book Inside The Tardis: The Worlds of Doctor Who. As Aldred’s confidence grew, Chapman argues, her initially tomboyish character was allowed to grow and develop in ways previously unseen in a Doctor’s companion.

But it was not enough. Chapman also argues that by the end, the BBC had lost interest in the show to the extent that they deliberately scheduled in slots where it was “doomed to fail” making its cancellation in 1989 inevitable.

Ultimately, the real question should not be who killed Doctor Who but why it endured for an impressive 26 years in the first place.

And even after that, it never really went away.

THE FIFTH AGE: LIMBO (1989-2005)

Years passed. Speculation about whether the series might yet return continued throughout the Nineties. The series’ cult following never went away and was reflected in the continuing fanzines and by sales of Doctor Who novels and magazines. But it was 1996 before a new Doctor Who came along and when it did it came in the form of what turned out to be a one-off TV movie.

By many usual criteria, the movie entitled simply “Doctor Who” was a success. Around nine million UK viewers watched it, certainly enough to suggest there was an audience for the new Doctor. Much of the critical feedback was positive. Certainly, most seemed happy with the choice of the new Doctor: Paul McGann best known for his role in the cult comedy Withnail and I (1987) and the BBC First World War drama The Monocled Mutineer (1986).  The result of an audition process which had apparently included everyone from Mark McGann (Paul’s brother, one of an acting dynasty), Tony Slattery, Michael Crawford and John Sessions, McGann’s Doctor was styled as “a Romantic hero in the mould of Percy Bysshe Shelley” by writer James Chapman and was described as “the best” and “the sexiest Doctor ever” by others.

Probably the main failing of the TV movie, however, was with US audiences. Despite a US setting and the casting of American actors like Eric (brother of Julia) Roberts, the TV movie underperformed in the US and this ultimately ensured it would not continue as a series. Some have attributed this to poor scheduling choices – the film was put up against the final episode of long-running US sitcom, Roseanne. But in fact, it was more likely to have been let down by a simple fact; Doctor Who had never been on network TV in the US and so most American viewers were unfamiliar with the character, series and the concept.

It would take another later version of the show to slowly establish a foothold amongst US audiences. And it would need to establish itself in the UK first.

THE SIXTH AGE: THE RETURN (2005-2010).

Apparently, it isn’t possible to please all of the people all of the time. Well, maybe that’s true but the 21st century revival of Doctor Who certainly came damned close. By delivering a new Doctor Who imbued the all the production values the show deserved, the comeback pleased core fans, critics and newcomers alike.

Partly this was down to excellent casting. Although he only chose to play the Doctor for one series, Christopher Eccleston was one of the best known actors to have ever played the Doctor with a career encompassing memorable roles in TV dramas like Our Friends In The North and Russell T. Davies’s Second Coming to films like Danny Boyle’s debut Shallow Grave to Gone in Sixty Seconds. He was ably assisted by ex-pop star Billie Piper in the role Rose Tyler, one of the most popular companions ever.

Although much less well known on his appointment, David Tennant, star of Russell T. Davies’s Casanova, soon blossomed in the role of the Doctor, his performance developing from a rather uneven one in his early days in the TARDIS. By the time he left the series in 2010, he was rivalling Tom Baker for the position of most popular Doctor Who ever.

For to visit the Doctor Who of a decade ago is to see the show at an all-time high. Ratings for the 2007 Christmas special for example were almost higher than they had ever been, over 13 million. The show had furthermore spawned two successful spin-offs the more grown-up Torchwood and the Sarah Jane Adventures. Things had never been better.

THE SEVENTH AGE: INTO THE FUTURE (2010-?)

The last decade as seen a slight decline in the series’ fortunes. Since the departure of Russell T. Davies as show runner in 2010, ratings have fallen. Torchwood and The Sarah Jane Adventures have ended but have been replaced by a new spin-off series Class. Matt Smith and Peter Capaldi have both been well-received as the Doctor but there has been a growing sense that Doctor Who has gradually less compulsive viewing in the last few years.

Veteran actor Peter Capaldi has indicated that the forthcoming Series 10 of Doctor Who will be his last. But what does Series 10 have to offer? And what does Capaldi’s departure potentially mean for the show?

Ultimately, the future of Doctor Who is as yet unwritten. We do not even know much about Series 10. Yes, a few old favourites will return: Matt Lucas will reprise his recent role as Nardole. After a long build-up Pearl Mackie will finally take up her role as companion Bill to Capaldi’s Doctor. The likes of David Suchet and Ralf Little are also expected to appear.

Who then will be the new Doctor? Speculation has already been rampant although ultimately the decision as to replace Steven Moffat who his leaving his position as show runner after this series with Chris Chibnall might be as crucial.

For ultimately it is how Doctor Who responds to such changes, how successfully it renews and refreshes itself which will determine Doctor Who’s future. It is these qualities which have ensured its survival in the past half century and will maintain it in the future either as a cult or a show with a committed mass audience.

DOCTOR AT LARGE: BIG SCREEN TIMELORDS

One thing that might have made the idea of William Hartnell turning into Patrick Troughton a bit easier to swallow was the fact that many viewers had already seen the Doctor by someone other than Hartnell already. Veteran actor and future Rogue One star Peter Cushing had played the Doctor twice in the films Dr. Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966) both directed by Gordon Flemyng (father of the actor Jason Flemyng). Unsurprisingly, neither of these films is quite the same as the series. Despite his horror background, Cushing is a more good-natured Doctor than Hartnell in films which seem very specifically aimed at children. Roy Castle and future 21st century series star Bernard CribbIns provide comic relief respectively while the titles for both films suggest an attempt to capitalise on the early Daleks craze. Neither are bad films but after the second (probably superior) film did less box office than the first, no more films were made. Today, the two present an interesting curiosity as well as the earliest example of Doctor Who in colour.

ALL CHANGE PLEASE!: THE REGENERATION GAME

What brought on the Doctors’ big change each time?

  1. FIRST DOCTOR (The Tenth Planet, 1966): Old and worn out, Hartnell’s Doc collapses on the floor of the TARDIS. A few minutes later, Patrick Troughton gets up again. Clever eh?
  2. SECOND DOCTOR (The War Games, 1970): As punishment for his interventionist ways, the Time Lords force a “change of appearance” on Troughton’s Doctor as well as exile to Earth.
  3. THIRD DOCTOR: (Planet of the Spiders, 1974). Poisoned by radiation, this saw the term “regeneration” used for the first time. In Doctor Who, that is.
  4. FOURTH DOCTOR (Logopolis, 1981):  Falls from a radio telescope. We’ve all done it.
  5. FIFTH DOCTOR (The Caves of Androzani, 1984): Succumbs to poisoning while staring at Nicola Bryant’s cleavage. It’s what he would have wanted…
  6. SIXTH DOCTOR (Time and the Rani, 1987) Colin Baker’s Doctor regenerates into Sylvester McCoy following a crash landing for the TARDIS. An irked Baker refused to participate, so McCoy was filmed throughout the process using clever special effects and a blond curly wig.
  7. SEVENTH DOCTOR (The 1996 TV film): In a fridge in a morgue after being shot in LA.
  8. EIGHTH DOCTOR (The Night of the Doctor, 2013): Paul McGann’s Doctor dies in a spaceship crash regenerating into the War Doctor (the late John Hurt) after drinking a special potion in this mini-episode. The War Doctor then himself regenerates from old age in the 50th anniversary episode The Day of the Doctor (also 2013). Do keep up please!
  9. NINTH DOCTOR (The Parting of the Ways, 2005): Christopher Eccleston perishes after absorbing the time vortex.
  10. TENTH DOCTOR (THE END OF TIME, 2010): Absorbs a vast amount of radiation thus saving Wilfred Mott (Bernard Cribbins). Tennant wasn’t even born when Cribbins appeared in the Sixties Who movie.
  11. ELEVENTH DOCTOR (The Time of the Doctor, 2013): Receives a new lease of life after receiving a regeneration cycle from the Time Lords before regenerating into Peter Capaldi.

CHRIS HALLAM

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.

Book review: The Coppolas, by Ian Nathan

First there was the father, Francis Ford Coppola.

Having once been told (wrongly) that he would never walk again during a childhood bout of polio, as an adult he directed The Godfather, the ultimate family saga and one of the greatest films ever made. Following this up with two more 1970s classics, The Conversation and at time when movie sequels were still unusual, The Godfather Part II. His all-consuming ambition almost overwhelmed him while filming Apocalypse Now, however. Although ultimately a success, the production became almost as sprawling and chaotic as the Vietnam War itself, very nearly destroying both his marriage and his career in the process. Quieter and smaller films have followed since. The Outsiders. Rumblefish. The Rainmaker.

Then, there was the daughter, Sofia. Overcoming the widespread criticism which surrounded her acting performance (stepping in for Winona Ryder) in her father’s underwhelming Godfather Part III in 1990, Sofia blew discerning audiences away at the end of the decade with her impressive directorial debut, The Virgin Suicides. Soon after that she really made her mark with Lost in Translation, a film which remains one of the most acclaimed American films of the 21st century so far and made a star of the then still teenaged Scarlett Johansson. Since then, her record has been more mixed: Marie Antoinette completely divided audiences, The Bling Ring generally underwhelmed them, The Beguiled impressed the arthouse crowd while never attracting box office numbers.

This is mainly their story but it is also the tale of the other Coppolas. Talia Shire, Francis’s sister who played Connie in The Godfather films and Adrian, the love of boxer Rocky Balboa’s life, in the Rocky films. She is the mother of director and actor, Robert Schwartzman as well as the actor and musician, Jason Schwartzman, best known for his roles in Wes Anderson films notably Rushmore as well as in his cousin Sofia’s Marie Antoinette as well as Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim Vs The World and many other films and TV shows. Then there is rising star, Gia Coppola, the promising young director of Palo Alto. Her father, Gian-Carlo (the son of Francis and sister of Sofia) was tragically killed in a speedboat accident while Gia was still in the womb in 1987.

Not to forget, Nicolas Coppola, the son of Francis’s late brother, August, now known as the Oscar-winning actor, Nicolas Cage. Initially starting out in his uncle’s 1980s films Rumblefish and Peggy Sue Got Married, Cage (who took his adopted surname from the comic character, Luke Cage) is sometimes erratic (he has been married five times forging a familial link between the Coppolas, the Presleys and the Arquette acting dynasty) but has enjoyed enormous success working alongside the Coens, David Lynch and John Woo.

This is a fascinating account of a family whose own saga has become inextricably linked to the unfolding story of American cinema.

Book review: The Coppolas, by Ian Nathan. Published by: Palazzo Editions.

Book review: Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay, by William Gibson

Alien 3: The Unproduced Screenplay by William Gibson: by Pat Cadigan; William Gibson. Published by: Titan Books.

There is quite a lot of backstory here. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…

To start with: this isn’t a screenplay. It is a novel. It is a novel written by Pat Cadigan based on a screenplay which was written but not used for the 1992 film, Alien 3. The original screenplay was written by the distinguished science fiction author, William Gibson who is best known for his Hugo award-winning 1984 cyberpunk novel,, Neuromancer. But his script for Aliens 3 bore no resemblance to one used for the finished film.

On this evidence, it seems a shame Gibson’s version was never put into action. For the actual Aliens 3 (despite being directed by a young David Fincher who later oversaw the two classics, Seven and Fight Club) was a disappointing failure. This is a shame because the first two Alien films, Ridley Scott’s chilling Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s action-packed Aliens (1986) remain two of the finest science fiction films ever made. But no good Alien films have been made in the years since. Perhaps you’ve only ever seen the first two movies? If so, take my advice and stop there.

Incidentally, this volume would sorely benefit from the inclusion of some sort of introduction explaining what exactly this is.

Unlike the aliens themselves, Alien 3 had a long gestation period. The Gibson screenplay was written early on, soon after Aliens (1986) had been released and proven to be a success. William Gibson’s story has a few strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, it has a much better start than the actual Alien 3. This opened badly with the revelation that two of the survivors of the second film,, Newt and Corporal Hicks had been killed in an accident, a depressing and unsatisfactory outcome for viewers who had seen them live through and survive so much during James Cameron’s film. In this version, Hicks (portrayed by Michael Biehn in Aliens) and the android, Bishop (Lance Henriksen) both play a major role in the action. This is very welcome. More controversially, the franchise’s traditional heroine, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) is very much pushed to the side lines here. Another weaker aspect, is the introduction of a futuristic version of the USSR, something which would already have seemed dated by the time the finished film came out in 1992, the USSR having collapsed the year before. It certainly looks dated now.

But overall, this remains an enjoyable mixture of science fiction and horror: Pat Cadigan, who wrote this prose version, is an accomplished and talented Hugo-award winning author herself. It would be easy to mock: “In space, no one can hear you yawn…”  But, in truth, this a good novel in its own right and an intriguing footnote on the history of film, shedding light on a great cinematic What If…? which might so easily have been.

Book review: A Class Act, by Rob Beckett

Book review: A Class Act, Life as a Working-Class Man in a Middle-Class World, by Rob Beckett. Published by: Harper Collins. Available: now.

Now in his mid-thirties, Rob Beckett is a comedy success story, a popular stand-up, podcaster and a familiar TV face from shows like Mock The Week, 8 Out of 10 Cats and Taskmaster. He is also something of a rarity on the British comedy circuit in that he hails from a genuinely working-class background. This is his story, not a straightforward autobiography but a look at how his life and career have been affected by his past.

Judging by his own (and, indeed, probably many people’s) criteria, Beckett passes what he himself calls, ‘the Working-Class Test’ (perhaps this should be renamed, ‘The Beckett List?) with flying colours. He grew up in south-east London. His father worked as a driver: first driving vans, then petrol tankers, then a London taxi cab, His mum is known as ‘Big Suze’. He spent his 16th birthday at Crayford dog-racing track. He didn’t eat an avocado until he was 31. On the other hand, there is a darker side to all this. At his first ever Parents’ Evening at school, his parents were told straight that “he’s never going to be a high achiever or a high flier.”

Despite this, these experiences have left him not so much angry as conflicted. The book’s cover which shows him smartly dressed and cheerfully enjoying an expensive drink while simultaneously clearly about to tuck into a plate of bangers and mash while seated in a greasy spoon café, comically reflect his mixed feelings. His background has clearly caused him no small measure of awkwardness in the past. After an early comedy success winning a trip to Adelaide after securing the Best Newcomer award at Edinburgh ten years ago, Beckett found himself stuck there with no money left to enjoy the city at all. In a later incident, after being invited to a swanky party hosted by Jimmy Carr he found himself mocked by other guests for arriving with a few cans of beers in a plastic bag. Although he gets on well with his warm and supportive family, he admits to having been occasionally been embarrassed by their behaviour. It’s true, one or two of his issues can be attributed to other things: he recognises he was self-conscious about his weight for many years. A few elements of his parents’ behaviour sound like they might be more to do with general eccentricity or old age than anything else. But he is right to recognise that most of these problems have been down to class.

Today, Rob Beckett recognises he is definitely middle-class himself. His wife is middle-class: for one thing, she had never eaten fried chicken before meeting him. He also recognises his daughters will grow up to be much posher than he is. Occasionally his insecurities return. Most dramatically, it took a near nervous breakdown shortly before lockdown to make him realise his continued success did not depend on him taking literally every job he was offered. Even as a successful comedian who had been commissioned to write this book, he admits it took him a while to realise he wasn’t being needlessly financially reckless to even consider buying himself a new laptop rather than awkwardly sharing the computer his wife was using to home school the children during lockdown.

He frequently seems amazed he is writing a book at all. And no wonder. His father didn’t even read a book until he was 43. The book in question was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, in fact, written by Sue Townsend, a woman from a far poorer background than the Becketts.

Like her, Rob Beckett has come a very long way from where he started out from. But then, perhaps not so far, at the same time.

Book review: History, by Miles Jupp

The year is 1998 and Clive Hapgood is an overworked History teacher in a small public school in this debut novel from the talented comedian and actor, Miles Jupp.

Clive is 38, but looks older. His hair greying and a bald patch is developing after years of struggling to juggle the demands of a headmaster who takes advantage of him every chance he gets and a busy, stressful home life dominated by his wife and two young daughters.

Jupp is a good writer and creates a vivid portrait of both the minutiae of Clive’s desperately overburdened existence at Frampton School and the horrors of a family holiday in Normandy.

Already a proven talent in other fields, Jupp proves his authorial credentials in a novel which contains some similarities to Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim.

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.

Book review: Watching Neighbours Twice A Day, by Josh Widdicombe

Josh Widdicombe must be one of the busiest comedians working in Britain today. In the week before I wrote this review, I am aware that he has been on Who Do You Think You Are?, the newly-revived Blankety Blank and, as always, alongside Adam Hills and Alex Brooker on Channel 4’s Friday night hit, The Last Leg. And that’s without me even checking properly: goodness knows how many times he’s cropped up on Dave in that time, perhaps on a repeat of his own panel show, Hypothetical or on an old episode of Taskmaster.

This book isn’t a full-blown autobiography, however. It is the story of Josh’s youth growing up in Dartmoor as told through the TV he watched, specifically during the decade of the 1990s. As someone who watched a lot of TV myself during this period (and who still does), this format is very appealing to me. Many of the shows Josh watched were the ones I watched too. Josh can at least justify his childhood TV addiction on the grounds that he grew up in a remote sparsely populated area of Devon. I, however, grew up in Peterborough: not exactly a hub of culture but a busy enough, populous (new) town. What was my excuse?

Anyway, Josh begins by discussing Gus Honeybun, a regional ITV children’s puppet famous to anyone growing up in the south-west of England at almost any point during the last four decades of the 20th century but wholly unfamiliar to me and the vast silent majority of the world who grew up anywhere else. The only reason I’d ever heard of Gus before at all, is because I moved to Devon when in my twenties in the 2000s (presumably the exact opposite of what Josh himself did) and have had people talk to me about this great, mythical, winking TV birthday bunny since. Any young viewers who, like myself, grew up in the area covered by the Anglia ITV franchise were lumbered with a frenzied waving TV puppet called ‘B.C.’ during this period. ‘B.C.’ stood for ‘Birthday Club’ which was also not entirely accidentally, the name of the short segments of TV, ‘B.C.’ himself appeared on, often with Norwich-based presenter, Helen McDermott. Unlike Gus Honeybun whose identity was entirely unambiguous, I am genuinely unsure what animal ‘B.C.’ was supposed to be. Some sort of wildcat? Perhaps a leopard? Maybe even a giraffe? He doesn’t really look anything like either of these. Occasionally, ‘B.C.’ would be absent because “he’s on his holidays today” (translation: he’s in the washing machine). At any rate, as with the solar eclipse of August 1999, I suspect the south-west got the best of it here. ‘B.C.’ may as well have stood for “Bored Children.”

Anyway, this is only one of many items on TV discussed here. Others include:

Neighbours: Like Josh, I too, was a huge fan of the Australian soap for a fairly short period. However, I am over six years older than him (he was born in 1983, I was born at the end of 1976) and here it really shows. I’d largely lost interest by the time he got into it. Despite us both remembering Todd Landers being run over, there is little cross-over (he doesn’t mention ‘Plain Jane Super Brain’ or Dr. Clive Gibbons at all). His discussion of a horrendously racist 1996 storyline in which the character Julie Martin accuses her new Chinese neighbours of killing and barbecuing her missing dog is grimly fascinating though. As is the ‘Big Break’ chapter which details just some of the horrors of Jim Davidson’s career.

Ghostwatch: Unlike Josh (and many others) I never thought this notorious dramatized ‘live broadcast from a real haunted house’ was actually real. Although as he points out, knowing it isn’t real does nothing to diminish just how terrifying to watch it is even today. Or brilliantly made. Even the bit where Michael Parkinson gets possessed.

The Simpsons and I’m Alan Partridge: These chapters are essentially songs of praise about the brilliance of 1990s TV comedy. I am in full agreement.

GamesMaster: I watched it too. And, happily, Josh’s household was so far behind that his memories of 1990s computer games sit happily with my memories of 1980s ones.

In short, I loved the book and would highly recommend it. I agree wholeheartedly with him about some things: Election ’97 was a joyous and memorable night. The death of Diana was a genuinely tragic and shocking event but by time of her funeral had descended into a distasteful grief-fest which much of the population (myself and Josh himself included) felt wholly isolated from.

I disagree with him about other things. The Spice Girls certainly were not “the greatest pop band of all time.” And on points of factual accuracy: nobody ever died of a drug overdose on Grange Hill (Zammo, the school heroin addict never died while Danny Kendall’s death in the series was not drug-related). And Tony Blair famously never once sent an email while in Downing Street.

There was too much football talk in the book for me, but for this he cannot be faulted. He was and is a football fan. It would be unreasonable not to expect him to discuss it. In truth, I could have written a far longer review than this one.

There are chapters on many 1990s TV shows here, amongst them, Gladiators, Badger Girl, Knightmare, You Bet!, TFI Friday, 999, The X-Files and Eldorado. There are no chapters on Twin Peaks, Our Friends in the North, Prime Suspect, Inspector Morse, Cracker or Queer as Folk. But so what? There are no chapters on Baywatch, Hollyoaks, The Darling Buds of May, Friends, Byker Grove, South Park or Sweet Valley High either. You cannot write about everything.

Who does he think he is? Josh Widdicombe is a fine comic writer and as Adam Hills would put it, “the pride of Dartmoor.”

Published by: Blink.

Book review: And Away… Bob Mortimer: The Autobiography

In 2015, Bob Mortimer very nearly died.

At the age of 56, Bob had complained of increased breathlessness as he approached a new tour with his old comedy partner, Jim Moir, better known as Vic Reeves. The prognosis was bad: Bob had a serious heart condition and the tour was cancelled as he underwent triple bypass surgery. Happily, the operation was a success and Bob escaped the horrifying prospect that in common with fellow comedians, Eric Morecombe or Rik Mayall before him or Sean Hughes, Jeremy Hardy or Sean Lock in the years since, he might die while still in his fifties.

Now, like one of the fish he and Paul Whitehouse routinely returns to the water after catching them on their popular BBC series, Gone Fishing, Bob feels he has been given a second chance at life. The years since have seen further acclaimed appearances outwitting David Mitchell on panel show, Would I Lie To You?, a series victory on Taskmaster, launching his Athletico Mince podcast with Andy Dawson, appearing in the aforementioned Gone Fishing and now writing this enjoyable autobiography.

It isn’t all laughs. In addition to his more recent health issues, his father was killed in a car accident when he was just seven and Bob accidentally burnt down the family home after experimenting with a firework indoors soon afterwards. He also fought and successfully overcame both depression and acute shyness while still a young man. But this definitely isn’t a gloomy memoir either: quite the opposite. Bob is a modest man and clearly much more intelligent than he sometimes pretends. He has a good turn of phrase (he describes his old friend, Paul Whitehouse as resembling “a walnut on a stick”) and successfully qualified as a solicitor, practicing for some years in the 1980s. He never even refers to the fact that he won the fiercely competitive series Taskmaster, an omission it is impossible to imagine say, Richard Herring or Ed Gamble ever making.

He lives up to his reputation as a loveable eccentric, for example, extolling the benefits of always having some ‘pocket meats’ on his person (an unhygienic-sounding habit which along with years of heavy smoking and sugary tea, presumably contributed to his heart issues). He remembers his years growing up in 1970s Middlesbrough with real affection. On two occasions in the book, he stages his own little game of Would I Lie To You? inviting the reader to identify which of his anecdotes from both his Middlesbrough days and his later legal career are true and which are false. Frustratingly, he never reveals the answers. I would hazard a guess that nearly all of them really happened. But who can ever really be sure with him?

His career in comedy came about initially entirely by chance as he stumbled into a venue playing host to an early live performance of Vic Reeves’ Big Night Out in 1988, after seeking solace after discovering he was being cheated on by a girlfriend earlier that very same day. Bob became a regular member of the audience before gradually getting drawn into the show itself. By the time, the catchphrase-heavy show (“what’s on the end of the stick, Vic?”, “Vic! I’ve fallen,” “You wouldn’t let it lie…”) made its sensational transition to Channel 4 in 1990, Bob was Vic’s co-star. This would remain the case for most of the next thirty years, with Bob only frequently embarking on solo projects or working with someone else in recent years. Although occasionally hampered by his inability to act – notably on the early 21st century revival of Randall and Hopkirk and on the later enjoyable sitcom, House of Fools – Bob has rarely been off our screens for long, winning a cult following with shows such as Catterick and mass audiences in his and Vic’s biggest popular success, the frequently hilarious comedy panel show, Shooting Stars.

Now in his sixties, he is a now a much-loved, warm-hearted figure with an eccentric, unique and often spectacularly original mind. He is a national treasure.

Published by Gallery UK. Available: now.