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: 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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Why I cannot vote for Corbyn as leader again

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As a party member, I voted for Jeremy Corbyn a year ago. He was the best of the candidates available at the time. But a year on, one thing is clear:  it’s not working out. The party has been in perpetual crisis ever since. It has been behind in the polls for his entire first year as leader, the first time this has happened in my lifetime I think and I am in my late thirties. Even under Michael Foot, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, Labour were ahead sometimes. Now they never are.

It cannot go on like this. There has to be a change. Owen Smith isn’t great but if he does well, someone else will move into the contest to lead the party. I am not expecting this to happen. I am expecting Jeremy Corbyn to win.

But what reasons do people give for supporting him?

He is moral and decent: I believe this. I don’t trust Virgin Trains in the matter this week for a moment. But Clement Attlee was moral and decent and led us to victory where we achieved great things. Michael Foot was moral and decent and led us to electoral disaster, leaving Margaret Thatcher a huge majority with which to do as she wished. Being moral and decent is not enough in itself.

He has already won a huge mandate from his party: True, but that was a year ago. A lot has changed since then. This is a new contest. Saying “he won the leadership before” is not an argument for backing him again.

The media are hostile to him: The press certainly are. But they always are to Labour. That isn’t really the problem.

Many MPs never supported him from the outset: This is true and certainly isn’t too their credit. I will certainly support Corbyn if he wins. I hope MPs do the same. Pro-Corbyn members should stop going on about purging their enemies within the party too. Enough is enough.

Labour MPs should represent the majority of their members’ views: No. This has never been the case. MPs should vote for whoever they wish.

Winning isn’t everything: No, but it’s essential if we are to accomplish anything. The Tories have their smallest majority since 1945. Victory is achievable but some of us act as if we don’t want to win, as if to win is the same as becoming a Tory.

Had we followed this approach in 1945, we would now have no NHS or welfare  state. If we had done the same in 1964, homosexuality and abortion would never have been legalised, the death penalty abolished or comprehensive education introduced. And had we not won in 1997, there would now be no minimum wage, Good Friday Agreement or devolution.

We owe it to our people to win power. And we cannot do so, under Jeremy Corbyn.

 

 

Film review: Dad’s Army (2016)

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Who did they think they were kidding?

A new film version of the classic BBC TV comedy series about the Walmington-on-Sea Home Guard was never likely to win over fans of the much loved sitcom.

But in fairness, while certainly not great, this isn’t all bad. The casting is mostly successful, Toby Jones actually achieving the near impossible mission of filling Arthur Lowe’s shoes as Captain Mainwaring. Line of Duty star Daniel Mays is also excellent as the spiv Private Walker and Michael Gambon (despite a needlessly crude scene in which he pisses on another character) does an admirable job of evoking the spirit of the placid Private Godfrey (originally played by Arnold Ridley). There is an admirable attempt to expand the female cast (perhaps a slight failing of the original show) including Alan Partridge’s Felicity Montagu as the formidable and previously unseen Elizabeth Mainwaring.

There is quite a lot that is bad though. Although mostly competent, most of the cast such as Tom Courtenay as Jones (a genuinely old actor playing the character Clive Dunn played in middle age) and Bill Nighy’s Wilson generally remind you of the old cast just enough to annoy you rather than truly replacing them.Blake Harrison of the Inbetweeners completely misjudges Pike playing him more as a debonair lech than as the juvenile “stupid boy” Ian Lavender perfected despite both actors playing the role at a similar age.

Like the 1971 film, the movie errs in making the platoon face a very specific foe in this case in the form of spy Catherine Zeta Jones. In the TV series, the real but unseen threat posed by the Nazis overseas was usually deemed sufficient although in fairness this is perhaps an inevitable consequence of expanding Dad’s Army into a full length film.

Unanswered questions abound though. Why does the film start in 1944 when in reality that was the year the Home Guard ceased activity anyway? Why is one group of characters shown in fox hunting regalia, when hunting never occurred during the war? Why does the plot hinge on a civilian telephone call to occupied Paris, an impossibility at the time? Why does Jones suddenly start making a fairly deep philosophical point on one occasion? Why is Wilson suddenly revealed as an ex-university don?

This isn’t a disaster and is certainly respectful to the memory of the series. But forty years on from the end of the series, one wonders if even despite its surprisingly strong box office (mostly, like the Brexit result, due to older audiences) if this will be our final visit to Walmington-on-Sea.

Director: Oliver Parker. Cast: Toby Jones, Catherine Zeta Jones, Bill Nighy, Bill Paterson, Michael Gambon, Daniel Mays, Felicity Montagu, Alison Steadman, Sarah Lancashire

 

 

 

 

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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Brexit: Ten Years On (2026)

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It has now been a full decade since Britain voted 53 to 47 to leave the European Union.

Opinion polls now indicate that over 75% now regard this as a bad decision with many of the architects of Brexit such as the former Prime Minister Lord Cameron expressing regret at the move. It is unlikely Cameron’s seven undistinguished years in Downing Street will be remembered for much else. Like Thatcher before him, his premiership both began and ended with severe economic recession.

The pound began dropping before the celebrations had even ended. Cameron and his Chancellor George Osborne were able to briefly use the cover of the mounting economic crisis to cling to power into the new year. He was assisted in this by the ructions in the Labour Party with Labour MPs using the excuse of the referendum defeat as an excuse to blame and overthrow their leader Jeremy Corbyn.

By 2017, unemployment was over two million (it has never been as low since) and both the facts that the country had a huge deficit and the Tories had a tiny majority suddenly became hugely relevant. As under John Major, the economy suffered both severe recession and Tory civil war. The Queen expressed concern. Cameron fell. For all his sub-Churchillian rhetoric, his gaffe-prone successor Boris Johnson proved no more able to cope with the slump than Cameron had. Nor could Chancellor Michael Gove.

Ten years on, unemployment is again back to 1980s levels, permanently over three million. Immigration has increased dramatically, the illusion that we could control our own borders on our own dramatically exposed as a pipe dream. UKIP, against expectation, remains strong although less strong than the resurgent pro-European  Liberal Democrats.  Any democratic gains achieved by Brexit seem to have passed most people by, unnoticed.

The newspapers, fierce cheerleaders for Brexit at the time now condemn it as an “historic mistake”.

The Prime Minister, encouraged by the support of former US president Hillary Clinton, is thought to be contemplating a new bid to apply for EU membership as soon as soon as the coronation is over.

It is not known if this will be successful.

 

 

Movie review: The Jungle Book

jungle-book-2016-trailers-bare-necessitiesLet’s just make things clear: despite the name, this isn’t a book, it is a film. Nor is it the famous Disney cartoon, the one you probably saw first as a child and doubtless have fond memories of. It also isn’t the forthcoming one with Cate Blanchett and Benedict Cumberbatch in either. That’s Jungle Book: Origins due out in 2018. Finally, it isn’t the now largely forgotten 1994 live action version. But I doubt you ever thought it was anyway: It is largely forgotten.
This one is a live action film starring Peter Venkman from Ghostbusters, Nelson Mandela, the Black Widow from The Avengers and Mahatma Gandhi. Mowgli is clearly intended to remind you of the cartoon one with his orange pants and big dark hair but is actually played by a real boy, the excellent Neel Sethi. As in Babe though, the animals are real but have been granted the power of speech by magic.
Although they are mostly celebrity voices, I couldn’t identify most of them when I saw the film so was not too distracted by this. Mowgli is raised by wolves after his father was killed by the evil tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). The animal pursues the boy throughout occasionally leaping out at him unexpectedly like Richard Parker in Life of Pi. He is much scarier than the 1960s George Sanders version. His face actually looks evil. He is more like the Tyrannosaurus Rex from Jurassic Park than Tony from the Frosties adverts. Who would have thought a lethal man-eating predator could be imbued with such a sense of menace?
(That said, the first two lines of Blake’s famous poem literally come true at one point. Spoiler over.)
Mowgli moves from the care of panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) to the amiable bear Baloo (Murray). Note to children: bears and panthers are often quite dangerous in real life too. Scarlett Johansson voices the apparently telepathic snake Kaa. And yes, two songs from the old cartoon do crop up, just when you’re starting to miss them.
Only Christopher Walken whose King Louis comes across as a sort of cross between King Kong and Marlon Brando’s character at the end of Apocalypse Now strikes a false note. Have you spoken to any six year olds lately? Much of their cinema knowledge is pathetic. Many haven’t even seen Batman Returns let alone Heaven’s Gate or The Deer Hunter. Very few of them know who Christopher Walken is so his weird speech patterns are just distracting. Maybe he does want to talk like you hoo hoo but the fact is he speaks like no one else on Earth.
Is this a good family film? Yes. But it never let’s you forget the cartoon version. And, to be honest, that was better than this.

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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