Book review: The Art of Carlos Ezquerra

This year, 2022, marks the 45th anniversary of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic, 2000AD. Excellent news as this, one sad, though inevitable consequence of the comic’s longevity, has simply been that we’ many of its talented creators have inevitably started to die off. Massimo Belardinelli, Steve Dillon, Brett Ewins, Ron Smith and Garry Leach have all been amongst the talented artists to depart in recent years. Another, Garry Leach, died in March 2022.
In 2018, we lost Carlos Ezquerra., at the age of seventy. This book is a fitting monument to the prolific Spanish comic artist’s work.

It’s easy to forget that Ezquerra, who drew lots of very violent images in his time, started off working for girls’ comics like Mirabelle and Valentine. I was interested to see the examples from this period included here, although it’s clear ‘King Carlos’ was yet to establish his own distinctive style yet at that point.
Ezquerra really came of age on the war comic, Battle in the 1970s. On strips like Rat Pack and Major Eazy we can see the Ezquerra we know and love emerging for the first time. Now living in Britain, Ezquerra was now collaborating with writers like John Wagner. He also worked on the controversial, Action, a comic famously so violent that according to legend it was banned (it actually wasn’t).


Carlos Ezquerra will be probably always be most famous for creating two legendary sci-fi stories: Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog. The creation of Dredd has always been overshadowed by controversy. Having played a major role in defining the visual look of both Dredd himself (Ezquerra drew inspiration from his own memories of Franco’s Spain) and Mega City One, Ezquerra was enraged when the first ever Judge Dredd story was published in 2000AD Prog 2 in 1977, illustrated by a different artist, the then teenaged Mike McMahon. Ezquerra didn’t begrudge McMahon (himself a significant talent) at all but was furious not to get to produce the futuristic lawman’s debut. The reasons why this happened are still disputed.
Such was his anger, Ezquerra refused to draw Dredd for several years. In the meantime, he did other work for 2000AD notably the comic’s own adaptation of Harry Harrison’s light-hearted Stainless Steal Rat and illustrated Gerry Finley Day’s war/horror crossover, Fiends of the Eastern Front.
He also created the mutant bounty hunter, Johnny Alpha for the John Wagner story, Strontium Dog in 1978. Still annoyed about the Dredd snub, Ezquerra had created the best story in 2000AD’s short-lived sister comic, Star Lord. Star Lord merged into 2000AD anyway a few months later. Ezquerra drew pages and pages of Strontium Dog for 2000AD during the next decade. Characters from the strip illustrate the cover of this volume.


Ezquerra refused to kill Alpha off, however, and refused to work on the character’s epic story, The Final Solution which was illustrated by Simon Harrison and Colin MacNeil instead.
His instincts proved sound. 2000AD soon realised killing Alpha off had been a dreadful mistake. Ezquerra illustrated the revived Strontium Dog in the 21st century.
Ezquerra had, in the meantime, finally made his Judge Dredd debut in spectacular style. The Dredd mega-epic, The Apocalypse War ran in 2000AD for the first six months of 1982. Produced almost exactly midway through Ezqerra”s life, it is perhaps his greatest achievement.
Ezquerra continued to provide art for both Dredd and Strontium Dog until his final days. The man himself may be gone but the legend of ‘King Carlos’ will never be forgotten.

The Art of Carlos Ezquerra. Published by: Rebellion. Available: now.

Book review: Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain

A history book written backwards?

The idea might sound bizarre, but in fact, in the case of Hannah Rose Woods’ excellent new book, it makes perfect sense. For this is a history of nostalgia itself. As Woods gradually takes us back from the 2020s to the Tudor era, it makes so much sense that a chapter covering the years 1914 to 1945 should follow the one focusing on the period spanning 1945 to 1979, that it soon begins to seem normal.

Indeed, there never seems to have been a time when Britain wasn’t taking a fond look back over its shoulder to savour the apparent security and certainties of the recent past. Many today might mourn the passing of the immediate post-war decades. But Woods is good at myth-busting and points out things were rarely as simple as they seem. From the perspective of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Britain seemed, on the one hand, to be drifting into seemingly irreversible decline. We had lost our empire, been humiliated over Suez and as the 1960s moved into the 1970s, seemed to be perpetually lurching from one national crisis to another.

This is all true enough. But at the same time as Harold Macmillan pointed out, “most of our people have never had it so good.” During his premiership and for nearly twenty years after it, lots of people had more money and free time than ever, acquiring cars, living in their own homes and going on foreign holidays for the first time.  The year 1977 is often seen as marking something of a national low point, coming so soon after the 1976 IMF Crisis. But surveys from that year indicate Britons were then amongst the happiest peoples in the world. As the Canadian philosopher, Joni Michell had argued a few years earlier, “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?”

There is more. Contrary to popular myth, lots of people were pleased to be moved out of their slums, most people who went to the New Towns didn’t regret it (even in Stevenage) and some people were never happier during their entire lives than when the Nazis were bombing them during the Second World War (no joke!)

In short, this is an enjoyable and well-written book, packed with insights. You’ll be sure to remember it fondly, once it’s all over.

Book review: Rule, Nostalgia: A Backwards History of Britain, by Hannah Rose Woods. Published by: W.H Allen. Available: now.

Triffids, Cuckoos and Chocky: John Wyndham on screen…

As yet another version of his 1957 classic, The Midwich Cuckoos arrives on Sky Max starring Keeley Hawes and Max Beesley, Chris Hallam takes a look at past attempts to adapt the work of science fiction author, John Wyndham (1903-69) to the screen…

ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN INFINITY MAGAZINE IN 2019

In the land of the blind…

It is one of the most dramatic openings to any novel of the 20th century.

We join the narrator, Bill Masen as he wakes up one morning in hospital following a routine eye operation. The operation has been a success, but soon after removing his protective bandages, Masen realises that something has gone horribly, terribly wrong. It quickly becomes clear that the staff and patients of the hospital have all, aside from him, been struck suddenly and simultaneously blind. Worse, as he slowly ventures outside, he comes to recognise an even more horrifying truth: London, Britain and indeed, it emerges, the entire planet has been similarly afflicted. The eyesight of almost the entire human race has been irreparably damaged, failing largely simultaneously only hours after witnessing a sudden spectacular unexpected astronomical display in the sky, the night before. Only a few exceptions, such as Bill whose eyes were safely bandaged (much to his frustration) during the display, are left with their eyesight intact. Humanity has been reduced to a grim, shuffling, sightless mass by the catastrophe. It soon becomes clear: mankind is doomed. Particularly, as a lethal man-made race of giant, walking plants lies in wait, ready to take its place as the dominant species on the Earth.

So, begins John Wyndham’s classic 1951 novel, The Day of the Triffids. The novel was a huge success both at the time and in the years since, for example, making it onto the BBC’s Big Read list of the nation’s most popular novels more than fifty years later.

Wyndham’s opening directly inspired novelist Alex Garland when he penned the screenplay to Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 2002 film, 28 Days Later. The film’s early scenes are reminiscent of the earlier book with coma victim Jim (Cillian Murphy) waking up to discover an eerily abandoned city of London (Director Boyle created the “empty city” effect simply by filming early in the morning. His main problem was preventing wayward nightclubbers from wandering into shot). In 2010, Frank Darabont deployed similar tactics as wounded police officer, Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) discovers a similar catastrophe after a hospital stay in the first episode of the long-running US TV series, The Waking Dead. The series was itself based on an earlier graphic novel.

Both of these 21st century stories dealt with a world overrun by zombies. In Wyndham’s book, the planet is stalked by a different foe, the Triffids: giant man-made, walking killer plants. Already in existence before the disaster having been conceived as a botched Cold War attempt to resolve post-war food shortages, the new world order provides the Triffids with the perfect opportunity to have their day in the sun. They are equipped with lethal stings which they now deploy to good effect on the suddenly very vulnerable, newly blind human population. Our hero, Bill, a biologist, was indeed temporarily blinded by just such a sting while working on a Triffid farm, giving him the eye-injury, which ironically ultimately spared him suffering a worse fate, alongside nearly everyone else.

Later it is strongly suggested the surprise “meteor shower” which blinded the world may in fact have been the result of a Cold War germ warfare experiment released by satellite (satellites still being a futuristic notion in 1951). The light display may have been unleashed accidentally by either side with calamitous results. With the blind majority either starving or being gradually picked off by Triffifds, Bill and the few other remaining sighted are left to fend for themselves in an increasingly hostile, Triffid-filled world.

Wyndham’s world

Success came relatively late in life for John Benyon Harris.

The son of a barrister, he had been born in 1903 and had enjoyed a variety of careers including farming, law, advertising and the civil service. He had also been involved in the Normandy invasion in 1944. But despite this, it’s hard not to feel he was kept afloat by his family’s money, with his novelist brother seen as more of a success than he was himself.

Arthur C. Clarke felt Wyndham’s  social background was something of a flaw, robbing him of the financial desperation which for many writers helps nurture inspiration.

“John was a very nice guy,” the 2001 author later wrote. “but unfortunately suffered from an almost fatal defect for a fiction writer: he had a private income. If he hadn’t, I’m sure he’d have written much more.”

This is probably unfair. Wyndham had numerous short stories and a few books published throughout his life from the 1920s onwards, some with titles as intriguing as Jizzle (1949), Tyrant and Slave-Girl on Planet Venus (1951), Spheres Of Hell (1933 ) and (ahem) The Third Vibrator (1933).

But it was only in his late forties writing as John Wyndham for the first time that he achieved his first major success, after deciding to fuse two story ideas into one. One story was about a world suddenly struck blind. The other was about a race of killer plants.

The release of The Day of the Triffids marked the beginning of a golden period for Wyndham.

The year 1953 saw the release of The Kraken Wakes, which saw the world again imperilled, this time by an alien force which establishes itself under the sea, having dropped into the ocean from space. This time humanity is threatened by the aliens’ decision to use the Earth’s environment against it, flooding the planet by melting the polar ice caps. The book had a slightly different ending in the US where it was called Out of the Deeps.

The late Brian Aldiss described Wyndham’s works as “cosy catastrophes”. In reality, there is little cosy about any of them. If anything, The Kraken Wakes has grown more resonant in the decades since as humanity has become aware of the growing threat to our way of life by the very real threat of man-made global warming.

Wyndham moved dramatically forward in time for The Chrysalids (1955) which saw a society in thrall to Christian fundamentalism, following what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust centuries before. This event has come to be known as the Tribulation. Conventional wisdom has it that God is likely to unleash further retribution on the populace, unless the occasional mutations occur within some people are not exposed and driven out. In reality, of course, the mutations are the consequence of the nuclear war, rather than the cause of it. When a group of children start developing such mutations – notably telepathic powers – they soon find themselves in a struggle for their lives.

Psychic children also play a vital role in Wyndham’s next novel, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) in which a race of all powerful hyper-intelligent children come to dominate a small, ordinary mid-20th century English village. The circumstances around the children’s conception are strange indeed. Every woman in Midwich simultaneously falling pregnant following a bizarre 24 hour incident when the entire village (and, indeed, anyone who tried to enter it) fell unconscious). The resulting children, all of whom seem remarkably similar and Aryan-looking, soon show signs of malevolent behaviour, further fuelling suspicions that they are the product of some alien breeding experiment in which the women of Midwich were deployed unwittingly as vessels.

The Outward Urge (1959) marked something of a departure for Wyndham, not least because according to the cover, it was produced with another author, Lucas Parkes. In truth, Parkes was just another name for John Wyndham himself: he had already used this pseudonym in the past. The use of the name here does reflect a change of course for Wyndham, in this book which details the “history” of the world between 1994 and 2194. The story is told from the perspective of the Troon family who witness the continued stand-off between the west and the Soviet union culminating in nuclear war in the mid-21st century, resulting in a new world order dominated by the new superpowers, Australia and Brazil. In reality, of course, the USSR collapsed peacefully in 1991, an event Wyndham would have done very well to predict even if he had written the book in 1984, let alone 1959. The book owes something to H.G Wells’ The Shape of Things To Come (1933). Wyndham was a big admirer of the earlier science fiction pioneer.

Wyndham grew less prolific in his final years. Trouble With Lichen (1960), though not especially strong story-wise raises many interesting questions about the implications of a discovery which stands to substantially increase the duration of the natural human life-span.

Chocky (1968), meanwhile, saw a family jeopardised over concerns that what initially appeared to be their teenaged son’s imaginary friend is in fact a hyper-intelligent alien life force which is communicating with him telepathically. The books Web and Plan for Chaos (the first written around the time of The Day of the Triffids), were both published posthumously.

By the time of his death in 1969, John Wyndham had grown used to seeing his works adapted for TV, radio and cinema. This process has continued, with mixed results. The Day of the Triffids has spawned one not especially fateful film, a surprisingly compelling early 1980s BBC series and a further not very distinguished mini-series, featuring Eddie Izzard, a decade ago. The Midwich Cuckoos, meanwhile, became the monochrome cinema classic, Village of the Damned. In the 1990s, the film received the distinction of a parody on The Simpsons. The same decade also witnessed a remake by Halloween director, John Carpenter. A generation of schoolchildren were also collectively traumatised when three series of the deeply disturbing Chocky appeared on Children’s ITV in the mid-eighties.

More is sure to come. Fifty years after his death, John Wyndham’s legacy extends far beyond the actual books and short stories he left behind. His overall influence on others is impossible to measure. He is a giant of 20th century British science fiction.

World of Wyndham: A Timeline

Intro: His life and times, on page and screen…

1903: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris is born in Dorridge, Warwickshire

1928-1936: Writing either as John Benyon or John Harris, Wyndham pens numerous detective and sci-fi stories

1951: The Day of the Triffids is published to huge success. The name “John Wyndham” is used for the first time

1953: The Kraken Wakes, a similarly near-apocalyptic tale follows

1955: The Chrysalids

1956: The Seeds of Time, a short story collection by Wyndham appears

1957: The Midwich Cuckoos is published

1959: The Outward Urge is published

1960: Midwich Cuckoos is filmed as Village of the Damned by Wolf Rilla starring George Sanders and Barbara Shelley

The Trouble With Lichen published

1961: Another short story collection, Consider Her Ways and Other Stories is released

1963: Film version of Day of the Triffids. It is directed by Steve Sekely and stars Howard Keel

Children of the Damned, a film sequel to Village of the Damned is released directed by Anton M. Leader, starring Ian Hendry

1968: Chocky is released this year

1969: Wyndham dies in Petersfield, Hampshire. He is 65

1981: UK TV version of Day of the Triffids starring John Duttine

1984: TV version of Chocky. Followed by Chocky’s Children (1985) and Chocky’s Challenge (1986)

1995: John Carpenter remakes Village of the Damned. It stars Christopher Reeves, Kirstie Alley and Mark Hamill

2009: Dougray Scott, Joely Richardson and Eddie Izzard features in a new Day of the Triffids TV series

Book review: Radical Victorians, by James Hobson

The Victorian era is sometimes remembered as a stuffy, prudish period when radical ideas were either not proposed or not listened to. This is not entirely true. Here, author James Hobson details the lives of nineteen ground-breaking Victorians who boldly blazed a trail for various ideas and positions, which in most cases, were not widely adopted until much later, if at all.
Of the nineteen figures included not one, except perhaps Labour Party founder, James Keir Hardie is well-known today. Hobson’s interest is not in those who like Charles Darwin, saw their radical theories widely absorbed into mainstream society during their lifetimes. The book is more interested in the outliers: the often lonely figures who stuck to their guns in the face of almost universal indifference, hostility and sometimes hatred.
None of the nineteen figures lived to see their arguments become popular. Some of their outlandish notions, such as gender equality, freedom of the press and the notion of cremating the dead, have become widely accepted since. Others, such as socialism, vegetarianism and republicanism remain significant minority opinions, which are at least tolerated today. Others, such as spiritualism and eugenics have largely fallen out of favour.
Th figures included are a mixed bunch. For example, whatever good points they may have had, the vegetarian, Anna Kingsford,, socialist Henry Hyndman and scientist, Francis Galton were all undeniably very racist by modern standards. And while the author keeps an open mind, it is difficult to read the chapter about spiritualist, Florence Cook, without concluding she was some sort of fraud. Many of these figures were eccentric. Some were deeply flawed. All were very unusual.

But some undeniably great things and did much to improve the lives of large numbers of people. The 19th century temperance movement has developed a reputation for hypocrisy and cant. In the chapter on Ann Jane Carlile, Hobson reminds us that this wasn’t always the case and was, at any rate, tackling an extremely serious alcohol problem which was destroying thousands of lives. Josephine Butler, likewise, did invaluable work in combatting the sexual double standard enforced by the odious Contagious Diseases Act. Even Francis Galton, today notorious as ‘the father of eugenics’ was justly celebrated during his lifetime for his very real scientific achievements. His ultimately wrongheaded ideas about selective breeding were shared by many on both the left as well as the right at the time. They would become inextricably linked to the horrors of Nazism, but this would only happen long after Galton’s death in 1911.
In short, this book presents a fascinating portrait of a society tentatively taking the small but essential stepping stones towards the world we know today.

Book review: Radical Victorians: The Women and Men who Dared to Think Differently, by James Hobson. Published: May 30th 2022, by Pen and Sword.

Book review: Carry On Regardless, by Caroline Frost

“Isn’t it funny that a series called the Carry On films has stopped?” jokes the comedian, Tim Vine.
They in fact stopped a very long time ago now – in 1978 – but the public fascination with them has never ceased. From the gentle but jolly black-and-white National Service comedy, Carry On Sergeant in 1958 to the abysmal Carry On Emmannuelle twenty years later, a total of thirty Carry Ons films were produced. The early films such as the most second and most commercially successful release, Carry On Nurse (1958) were written by Norman Hudis and tended to poke gentle fun at national institutions, for example, the Army, hospitals, police force and schools. A big change came when Talbot Rothwell took over as screenwriter for the the 007 spoof, Carry On Spying (1964), a development which coincided with the arrival of Barbara Windsor on the cast and the move into colour. Carry On Spying in which Windsor played Daphne Honeybutt was the last one to appear in black-and-white.

From that point onwards, the films became less innocent and more smutty. Characters started having names like Dr. Tinkle and Gladstone Screwer and the films were crammed with all the sexual innuendoes (“Ooh! What a lovely pair!” “Once a week is enough for any man|!”) which they’ve become notorious for. On the plus side, they also became notably more ambitious, parodying everything from historical epics (Carry On Cleo, the most highly regarded of the series or Carry On Up The Khyber) to the Hammer Horror series (Carry On Screaming) with mostly enjoyable results, while always remaining cheap to produce.


As the 1970s began, however, things took a turn for the worse as the changing social mores of the ever more permissive society pushed the films into the gutter. Carry On Henry (1971) was good fun and the contemporary Carry On Camping (1969) – famous for the scene in which Barbara Windsor’s top bursts off during an exercise session – was one of the most successful of the whole lot. But by the mid-70s, the quality had declined to such an extent that most of the regular cast (Sid James, Hattie Jacques, Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw) had abandoned the whole enterprise. Those familiar faces were, of course, a key reason why the films had done so well. By 1992, with many of the originals either dead (Kenneth Williams, Sid James, Peter Butterworth, Charles Hawtrey) or unwilling to be in it (Windsor, Joan Sims, Kenneth Connor, Bernard Bresslaw and others), the disastrous attempt to revive the franchise with Carry On Columbus with a new cast of rising stars such as Julian Cary, Tony Slattery and Martin Clunes was doomed from the start.
Although it doesn’t gloss over the dark side of the series (the actors’ terrible pay, the miserable off-screen personal lives endured by Williams and Hawtrey), Caroline Frost’s book remains an affectionate portrait of a mostly fondly remembered national institution.

Book review: Carry On Regardless, by Caroline Frost. Published by: Pen and Sword. Available : now

Book review: Protecting the Presidential Candidates, by Mel Ayton

November 22nd 1963 was a terrible day for many people. For John McCormack, the 71-year-old Speaker of the House, it was an even more shocking time than for most. For McCormack was initially told not only that President John F. Kennedy, but also that his Vice President Lyndon Johnson had both been assassinated during their trip to Dallas. According to the line of succession this meant that he himself, as Speaker was now the US president. As the news sunk in, McCormack was overcome by a wave of vertigo and found himself momentarily unable to stand. When McCormack learnt the truth moments later: the Vice President was in fact completely unharmed and so he and not McCormack would become the next US president, a wave of relief spread across the old man’s face.
Mel Ayton’s book about the protection afforded to both presidents and candidates since the Kennedy era is full of such fascinating titbits. Both JFK and his brother, Bobby who was also shot and killed while seeking the presidency in 1968, both shared a fatalistic attitude to the possibility of assassination. As it turns out, Bobby’s tragic killing could have been very easily prevented. The racist presidential candidate, George Wallace, in contrast was generally very wary of the prospect of attack but was shot and paralysed during a brief moment of recklessness while on the campaign trail in 1972. Perhaps understandably, Ted Kennedy’s political career was haunted by constant fears that he might become the third successive Kennedy to fall foul of an assassin’s bullet. Richard Nixon used Ted Kennedy’s secret service detail as a means to spy on the senator who was a potential rival. Others have abused the secret service supplied, to them. JFK and Gary Hart both used them as a means to help facilitate their own womanising. Others have been resistant or unhelpful to their detail: Nixon’s tendency to plunge enthusiastically into large crowds without earning reportedly led him to be dubbed “a sniper’s dream.” Other candidates have treated their detail with much more respect and even something approaching friendship.
Ultimately, this is a full and revealing account of a fascinating subject. It is a shame that in the later chapters, Ayton’s political prejudices. notably his clear hostility to the Clinton family, get in the way of an otherwise compelling and readable factual account.

Protecting the Presidential Candidates: From JFK To Biden, by Mel Ayton. Published by: Frontline Books.

Book review: UnPresidented, by Jon Sopel

It was an election liķe no other.
The same, of course, has been said of most recent US elections ‐ the 2000 Bush/Gore disputed result, Obama’s historic 2008 win, the 2016 Trump upset. But as veteran British correspondent, Jon Sopel’s diaries remind us, the 2020 campaign really was, again, an election like no other. This is partly because of the unprecedented circumstances: the combination of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis and the George Floyd riots made it seem like a replay of 1919, 1929 and 1968 all at once.
It was also because of the uniquely eccentric and belligerent personality of the defeated Republican candidate, President Donald Trump. With the ultimately victorious Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden maintaining a low profile, the transparent and belligerent Trump largely lost the election by himself, suggesting at one point that the public inject themselves with bleach, deliberately and dishonestly playing down the extent of the pandemic and shamelessly and recklessly helping spread the virus himself amongst the population during his campaign.
Sopel’s compelling diaries now contain a new introduction on the violent aftermath of the election result and Trump’s second impeachment.

Book review: The Unofficial History of The Beano, by Iain McLaughlin

The Beano comic is now so old that there is now almost no one left alive in the UK who could not have potentially read it as a child.

The acclaimed children’s illustrator, Shirley Hughes, who died last month aged 94 apparently retained some memories of comics which “predated The Dandy and Beano.” Such people must be a rarity today. Besides even Hughes would have only just celebrated her eleventh birthday when the first Beano arrived in July 1938.

This book provides a decent and comprehensive history of Britain’s longest running comic authored by the appropriately named Iain McLaughlin, a onetime editor of The Beano himself.

This is as the title states, an unofficial history, however, and its worth mentioning that there are no images included from any issues of The Beano in this book at all. Such pictures as there are are mostly restricted to some fairly dry images of former contributors, statues of iconic characters such as Minnie the Minx and a cover which manages to evoke memories of the comic without actually including any pictures of characters at all. One wonders if there was some behind-the-scenes wrangling over this, perhaps explaining why the book was delayed from its original scheduled 2021 publication date.

It’s worth emphasising: this is still a solid, informative read. However, if you want to revisit the adventures of your favourite Beano characters be they Dennis the Menace, General Jumbo or Baby Face Finlayson, you’ll have to look elsewhere. There are no snapshots from Beano stories or even cover images inside.

Which Beano do you remember? Very old readers might just remember the very first Beanos featuring the likes of Big Eggo, Pansy Potter: The Strongman’s Daughter and Lord Snooty and his Pals. The new comic was one of three titles launched by Dundee-based publisher DC Thomson in the immediate pre-war era. The first, The Dandy (1937) featuring Korky the Cat and Desperate Dan was The Beano’s companion and rival until it folded in 2012 after an impressive 75-year run. The third comic, The Magic (1939), in contrast, never took off. Launched barely forty days before Hitler invaded Poland, the outbreak of the Second World War effectively finished The Magic off although it shared an annual with The Beano (‘The Magic-Beano Book’) for some years after its official closure in 1941.

Perhaps like my father’s generation, you’re old enough to remember The Beano’s 1950s golden age, a brilliant period for the comic which saw the launch of many of its most famous characters including Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Roger the Dodger, the now politically incorrect Little Plum and, best of all, The Bash Street Kids which originally appeared under the Hemingway-esque moniker, When The Bell Rings.

All of these stories were still going when I myself started getting the comic in the mid-1980s now joined by the likes of Billy Whizz, Smudge and Ball Boy and as time wore on, Ivy The Terrible and Calamity James.

This is a good story about a comic which has lasted a phenomenal 84 years. Hopefully your own memories of The Beano are vivid enough that you won’t need to see pictures of Biffo the Bear, Plug or Les Pretend in order to enjoy this.

If you do, try Googling them!

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: 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.

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.