Book review: Monty Python’s Hidden Treasures by Adrian Besley

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Published by: Carlton Books
It is a sad fact that the world today can be divided into two groups. Those who, like me, will always be amused by the likes of the Dirty Fork Sketch (punchline: “A good job I didn’t tell them about the dirty knife as well!”), the Upper Class Twit of the Year contest (“Nigel Incubator-Jones. His best friend is a tree. Works as a stockbroker in his spare time”), the quiz show Blackmail, the Ministry of Silly Walks, the Funniest Joke in the World and, of course, the Dead Parrot Sketch.

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Then there are those, perhaps a majority now sadly, for whom the humour of Monty Python’s Flying Circus will always be a mystery. Like The Goon Show which is now largely incomprehensible to anyone born after 1960, MPFC is increasingly dated.
Disparate members of the first group even those like me who were born after the series finished are thus forced to eternally roam the land muttering catchphrases (“nudge nudge, wink wink, likes photography? I bet she does! I bet she does!”) which are totally incomprehensible to the second group and trying to convince them it was funny.
In truth, although patchy as all TV sketch shows are, it really was often very funny. The cause was helped by the films too, particularly the Life of Brian, which have by and large aged better than the series.
This book attempts to bridge the gap still further with (if I may quote from the press release) “22 removable facsimiles of rare memorabilia from their official archives, including hand-scribbled scripts, cue sheets, character lists, posters, and animation artwork”. If the aim is to introduce the uninitiated to the ways of Python, I’m not sure it succeeds. Would anyone who didn’t know the series well buy it anyway? I doubt it.
But for any Python fans out there, this is a lovely book and a beautifully crafted treat for them.
And let’s not forget the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects…oh bugger.

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Book review: Kind of Blue by Ken Clarke

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Published by: Macmillan, 2016

Ken Clarke sits today on the backbenches. He is seventy six years old and since the death of Gerald Kaufman last month is the Father of the House, having served as MP for Rushcliffe since entering the House of Commons as one of Edward Heath’s new intake of fresh  young Tories in June 1970. He can look back on almost a half century in parliament, one of only four men alive to have held two of the four great offices of state: he has been Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer. The other three men are Douglas Hurd, Gordon Brown and John Major.

But unlike the last two, Clarke was never Prime Minister. We all must wonder what might have been, as he surely does.

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However, in many ways it’s hard to see how this could have happened. In other ways, it seems bizarre that it didn’t. Look at a list of recent Conservative leaders.The names that are there (Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Howard) are almost as surprising as those who are not (Heseltine, Portillo, Clarke himself).

Although he is defensive about it in this readable autobiography, Clarke did not excel as either Secretary of State of Health or Education during the later Thatcher, early Major years. But neither of these were ever strong areas for the 1979-90 Tory government, or indeed any Tory government. Clarke was never truly a Thatcherite. But when Clarke became Home Secretary after the 1992 April election and then Chancellor following Norman Lamont’s unceremonious departure in 1993, speculation mounted that the troubled Prime Minister John Major might have unwittingly appointed his own future successor to the Number Two job as Sir Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson (and indeed Thatcher) had before him.

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Although inclined to gaffes before and since, Ken (previously “Kenneth”) Clarke, known for his Hush Puppies, cigars and occasional pints of lager was a surprisingly competent Chancellor overseeing the UK’s recovery from the early Nineties recession. “Go home,” he once bellowed at an under-prepared Robert Maclennan of the SDP in the Commons, “lie down in a dark room and keep taking the pills.” He was popular, well known and a big hitter. But like another clubbable former Tory Chancellor Reggie Maudling, he never got the top job.

The reason was simple: Europe. Clarke was and is a keen supporter of the EU. With so many of John Major’s problems caused by his signing of the Maastricht Treaty, the increasingly Eurosceptic Tories were never likely to replace Major with him.

In 1997, following the colossal May 1st defeat, Clarke’s path to leadership should have been clear. His main rivals Michaels Portillo and Heseltine were out of the race, Portillo having famously lost his Enfield seat, while Tarzan apparently had heart issues. Clarke was far more popular and well known than his main rival, the thirty six year old, much less experienced former Welsh secretary William Hague. Polls indicated that if party members had had a vote, Clarke would have won easily. But the increasingly eccentric parliamentary party was happy to take the increasingly elderly Lady Thatcher’s advice. “Hague! Have you got that? H-A-G-U-E,” the Baroness spelt out to reporters, having just privately been told of the correct spelling herself.

The result? Another massive defeat in 2001. This time, party members too followed the increasingly frail Thatcher’s endorsement again choosing Iain Duncan Smith over Clarke. It was clearly an absurd decision from the outset. IDS was ditched in favour of an unelected Micheal Howard in 2003. Following the third consecutive Tory General Election defeat in 2005, Clarke, now ageing himself and harmed by his business dealings with Big Tobacco lost his third leadership bid to amongst others, a youthful David Cameron. A rare survivor of the Major era, Clarke served as Justice Secretary under the Coalition. In recent years, he has become increasingly gaffe prone. His wife Gillian died in 2015.

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Although it is unlikely Ken Clarke could have overturned the massive Labour majorities won by Blair in 1997 and 2001, had he become leader instead of the pro-war Duncan Smith, it seems likely a Clarke led Tory Party would have opposed the Iraq War, voted with Labour rebels to prevent UK involvement and forced Blair’s resignation. It was not to be. IDS’s Tories misjudged the situation and slavishly backed the war.

As Clarke himself reflects in this readable but unsurprising autobiography, his long parliamentary career has almost exactly coincided with the period of British membership of what used to be called the Common Market.

Ken Clarke is undoubtedly one of the better more decent breed of Tories, a far better man than the Boris Johnsons, Michael Goves, Stewart Jacksons, Jeremy Hunts and George Osbornes of this world. Politically incorrect though he is, one suspects he is liked far more by many of those outside his own party than he is by many of those within it.

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Book review: Viz Annual 2017 The Bookie’s Pencil

Viz has been available nationwide for well over thirty years now, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you’ve never heard of it, as surprisingly, many people haven’t. The first thing to emphasise is that this is anthology based on an adult comic and so not suitable for children. Or, for that matter, prudish or sensitive adults.

Once upon a time, Viz annuals were called things like “The Big Pink Stiff One”. This one is called “The Bookie’s Pencil,” a euphemism which I’ve never heard anyone use. Can we conclude from this that Viz has grown more subtle over the years?

No, it hasn’t.

The formula has remained largely unchanged. Comic regulars include:

Roger Mellie: The Man on the Telly:  A TV presenter who is notoriously foul mouthed when off air (and sometimes when on).

Spawny Get: A character whose luck varies dramatically from frame to frame, usually ending with him implausibly having sex with a large number of attractive women.

The Fat Slags: Two promiscuous overweight Geordie girls.

Spoilt Bastard: Almost self explanatory. A git who bullies his pathetic elderly mother into getting whatever he wants. This is generally one of the cleaner stories as is Mrs Brady, Old Lady, a geriatric who complains that no one will give up their seat for her on the bus and thus stands throughout even though the bus is virtually empty.

Often it is the newspaper, Top Tips and Letterbocks pages which provide the highlights.

In short, enter if you dare. A lack of squeamishness and an understanding of the traditions  of British comics and north-eastern regional dialects will all prove an advantage.

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Book review: The Long And Winding Road by Alan Johnson

alan-johnson-book-jacket-the-long-and-winding-roadImagine history had panned out differently. Alan Johnson might have become Labour leader in 2010. Labour might have won power in 2015 and the disaster which is Brexit might not now be happening. The pound would be strong, Ed Balls would be in government, Corbyn still on the backbenches while the Foreign Secretary might actually be someone who is capable of doing the job. Perhaps without Brexit to inspire him, Donald Trump would have lost in the US. We can dream anyway…

Perhaps this was never likely. Johnson never ran for the leadership and lost unexpectedly to Harriet Harman when he ran for Deputy. But as this, the third volume of his celebrated memoirs reminds us, Labour’s last Home Secretary is that rarest of things. Like Chris Mullin, he is a politician who can write.

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Book review: Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore

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In 1978, Alan Moore decided to quit the job at the Nottingham gas board and dedicate himself full time to breaking into the comics industry as a writer. It was a high risk strategy. He was twenty four years old and his young wife was pregnant. But Moore saw it as his last chance to exchange a job he hated for a career he loved.

Success came slowly with occasional one-off stories (Tharg’s Futureshocks) in the new science fiction comic 2000AD. Late came Skizz, D.R. and Quinch and my own personal favourite The Ballad of Halo Jones. More success came through the short lived and inappropriately titled Warrior comic (it was not war-related at all). Moore provided the backbone to the comic between 1982 and 1985, most famously with V For Vendetta, set in a late 1990s futuristic fascist dystopia. He also wrote Marvelman, now known as Miracleman, a promising superhero strip derailed by a legal dispute with Marvel Comics. This proved an forerunner to his greatest success, DC’s The Watchmen.

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Today, Alan Moore is still in Nottingham, in his sixties and one of the most successful comic writers ever albeit one with a bit of reputation for disputes with his employers or prospective filmmakers attempting to adapt his works (Moore has famously never seen any of the four films directly based on his works).

His fascinating story is detailed thoroughly by the always excellent Lance Parkin in this comprehensive biography.

Magic Words: The Extraordinary Life of Alan Moore by Lance Parkin, published by Aurum Press (2013)

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Book review: No Cunning Plan by Tony Robinson

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Blackadder was not the sort of programme to rely on catchphrases. Most that were deployed such as “You have a woman’s hand, m’lord,” or the lecherous “woof woof! were used by one-off or very occasional visitors to the saga such as Captain Rum (Tom Baker) or Lord Flashheart (the late Rik Mayall).

A notable exception was “I have a cunning plan…” words which Blackaddder’s sidekick Baldrick (Tony Robinson) would use to signal a usually absurd scheme to get the duo out of trouble. These included a plan to rewrite Dr Johnson’s famous dictionary in one night after Baldrick had accidentally burnt it (Baldrick’s helpful definition for the letter C (sea) being “big blue wobbly thing where mermaids live”). Another ruse involved an attempt to save Charles I (Stephen Fry) from execution by disguising a pumpkin as the King’s head.

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This is not the life of Baldrick, however, but the life of Tony Robinson. Although ultimately a tale of success (he is now a knight of the realm), it is an eventful, entertaining life although, as he freely admits, full of mistakes and less governed by any overall “cunning plan” than many.

Starting out as a child actor, appearing as one of Fagin’s gang in the original stage version of Oliver! Robinson was initially just keen to have fun and get out of school. After a long career including run ins with John Wayne and Liza Minnelli along the way, landing the role of Baldrick in 1983 didn’t seem like any sort of big deal. Indeed, as the first series was neither very  good or successful, initially it wasn’t.

But soon it had made his name and he was appearing in other Eighties comedy like Who Dares Wins and The Young Ones before writing his own Blackadder-influenced kids’ show Maid Marian and Her Merry Men. The long years hosting Time Team were still to come. And, yes, hosting The Worst Jobs In History really was his own worst ever job.

It’s not all laughs: he writes movingly about his parents’ descent into Alzheimer’s (one after the other). But this is a hugely entertaining and unpretentious read. Here’s to you, Mr Robinson…

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Book review: Edward Heath: A Singular Life

Edward Heath: A Singular Life by Michael McManus

Poor old Edward Heath. This year is the centenary of his birth and how has Britain chosen to honour it? By rejecting the one crowning achievement of his premiership:by choosing to reject our membership of what is now known as the European Union. As Gyles Brandreth (who was once sick on Heath’s shoes) has said: “were Ted still alive, it would kill him”.

Last year, was an even worse year for his posthumous reputation with the emergence of a number of allegations made against Heath, that he had sex with underage boys in retirement. Despite the fact these seem to have very little foundation, (Heath seems to have been homosexual by inclination but not in practice) the damage to Heath’s reputation seems to have been done. Thankfully, he never knew of them, having  died in 2005.

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This is a slightly odd book. There seems to have been a  proofing error in it (one chapter is described as covering “1950-1959” when it actually covers “1950-1970”). It claims to be “not a biography” when to all intents and purposes, it is. McManus’s website describes as “an acclaimed collection of essays, tributes and anecdotes about the former Prime Minister”. It isn’t. It is a biography featuring extensive quotes and recollections of Heath. As the introduction explains, something was lost in the journey from conception to completion.

This is still an excellent read, however, providing a real sense of Heath’s character over the years. It is easy to forget just what a supremely able person he seems to have been in his early years impressing many with his qualities diligence and leadership both during the war and as a rising MP. He practically kept the nation going as Chief Whip during the 1956 Suez Crisis with the real premier Sir Anthony Eden often overseas or ill or both.

heath2Real leadership does not seem to have brought out the best in him, however. On the one hand, joining the Common Market was a major personal triumph owing a lot to his endurance and diplomacy. He also acted courageously and correctly to isolate Enoch Powell from mainstream Tory politics, following the racist “Rivers of Blood” speech in  1968. But on the other hand, his was a disappointing premiership low on achievement and derailed by inflation and industrial action. Having been brought down by the two General Elections of 1974, having come to power after a surprise election win in June 1970, he was overthrown as Tory leader by his old Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher in February 1975.

Heath’s defensiveness in the face of media attacks plus his odd manner and sense of humour gave rise to the rather stuffy awkward image of Heath which prevails to this day: that of the “incredible sulk”.

It is not wholly unjustified. But his morally courageous attacks on the excesses of Thatcherism in later life, demonstrate that he was perhaps a better man than he was a Prime Minister.

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Book review: Order, Order! by Ben Wright

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Alcohol has long been the fuel which has powered the engine of our nation’s political life. Sometimes the results seemed to be beneficial. Margaret Thatcher generally found it difficult to relax and enjoyed a whisky or two most evenings during her long stint in Number 10. Winston Churchill also seems to have been improved incredibly by the astonishing amounts of alcohol he drank during his premiership. One has to wonder if we would have won the war, as BBC Political Correspondent Ben Wright does here, had he not drank.

Sometimes the results were less positive. During the 1970s, both Harold Wilson and Richard Nixon both saw their powers dim partly as a result of excessive alcohol consumption.Much earlier, William Pitt the Younger went through the same thing.

Occasionally, the results have been funny. Wilson’s famously erratic Foreign Secretary George Brown experienced numerous embarrassments as the result of his frequently “tired and emotional” state while Tory MP Alan Clark was famously exposed by Labour’s Clare Short as being drunk in the House on one occasion, or at least did so as far as Commons protocol allowed.

Often,  of course, as in the case of former Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy, the results have been tragic.

Ben Wright’s book offers a witty and well informed insight into one of Britain’s longest standing political traditions.

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Book review: Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking by Ben Wright.

Published by: Duckworth Overlook

Book review: The Impossible Has Happened by Lance Parkin

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The Impossible Has Happened: The Life and Work of Gene Roddenberry, Creator of Star Trek. Author: Lance Parkin. Aurum Press. Published: July 21st 2016.

It has been fifty years since the creation of Star Trek and the franchise is undeniably going strong. A new film and a new TV series are both scheduled to appear later this year.

Twenty five years after his death, the reputation of the series creator Gene Roddenberry is more uncertain. On the one hand, he has been subject to a personality cult almost as elaborate as that surrounding Scientology creator and sci-fi author. On the other hand, he has been demonised as a fraud, a philanderer and a phoney. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between.

He was born in 1921 and served with distinction as a pilot in the Second World War. After the war, ironically he came very close to death in a Pan Am air crash which killed seven people in 1947. He served in the US police force drifting into TV writing and creating one non-Star Trek series, a police-themed one called The Lieutenant. He then created Star Trek which ran for three series between 1966 and 1968. At the time, it was neither very successful or a failure. Mission Impossible which ran at about the same time was probably more successful. Leonard Nimoy indeed joined the Mission Impossible cast after Star Trek ended. But unexpectedly, Star Trek became a huge success after it had ended through syndicated repeat showings. The show grew and grew and grew.

Many of the myths surrounding Star Trek seem to come from stories Roddenberry himself told at science fiction conventions in the 1970s. Some had the commendable aim of consolidating a following for the series but others clearly had more to do with Roddenberry’s ego. Yes, the series did end after three series but Roddenberry’s claims that it was ended unfairly by small-minded producers don’t add up. It was no longer profitable and the last series was significantly worse than the others. Roddenberry also subsequently exaggerated his own role as a champion of equality and civil rights claiming falsely that he fought narrow minded studio heads over the issue In fact, though he wasn’t racist by mid-20th century standards, the 1960s series only ever featured as many other minorities as most other US TV series of the time. Nichelle Nicholls’ Uhura, for example, was barely ever given anything important to do. She was one of many women Roddenberry had affairs with and in truth, the original series really didn’t have a progressive role towards women at all.

Leonard Nimoy certainly grew to hate Roddenberry. The man would often claim sole credit for the success of the series, ignoring the contribution of many others. He had no role at all in the making of the most acclaimed film 1982’s The Wrath of Khan (which he hated) and his own increasingly drunken, ageing cocaine-addled influence partly explains why the ultimately excellent Next Generation series had such a dull start.

Author Lance Parkin provides a balanced portrait of a man who for all his many flaws took TV on a journey where no one had gone before.

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Book review: Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography. Volume Two Everything She Wants

 

charlesmoore-margaretthatcherThis is the second volume of Charles Moore’s three volume official biography of the first British woman Prime Minister and deals with the middle years of her premiership from the aftermath of her 1982 victory in the Falklands to her third and last election win in June 1987. These were the golden years for the Iron Lady: perhaps this period should be called “the Iron Age”?

Council houses are sold, utilities are privatised and opposition from Michael Foot’s and Neil Kinnock’s Labour, the SDP and the unions is aall crushed underfoot. Thatcher also exploits her ties to US President Reagan to mostly good effect and survives the 1984 Brighton bomb.

Moore is a former Daily Telegraph editor but despite this conservative bias is not always unaware of the lady’s faults. She never knew how to deal with her wayward son Mark, was lucky to survive the Westland Affair, was stubbornly blind to the numerous flaws of the Poll Tax and was privately very difficult during the 1987 election campaign.

Moore is weaker on popular culture, however, partly because he is very anti-BBC. He has given the book a title from a song by Wham! which virtually no one remembers and attacks Sue Townsend for putting anti-Thatcherite sentiments into Adrian Mole’s adolescent poetry (“Do you weep Mrs Thatcher, do you weep?”) while condemning Rik from TV’s The Young Ones for attacking the “Thatcherite junta”. Townsend and the Young Ones’ creators were undeniably left wing but Moore misses the point. The satirical targets here were not Thatcher but the immature Mole and “people’s poet”/sociology student Rik themselves.

At another point, he accuses David Frost (by that point, a fairly gentle interviewer and certainly no lefty) of “having a go at her” rather than asking perfectly reasonable questions during the 1987 election campaign. At no point does Moore offer any examination of the often dubious but consistent support given to her by the slavishly pro-Thatcherite tabloid press.

Moore also does not really understand why Thatcher made so many people so very angry. For this was a time when levels of homelessness and crime soared, unemployment reached its post-war peak (3.6 million) and the NHS was savagely undermined.

There is little mention of these things in the book.

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Published by Allen Lane

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography Volume Two: Everything She Wants

Author: Charles Moore