TV review: The Politician – Season 2

Payton Hobart is back.

Having licked his wounds after the bruising San Sebastian High School presidential battle, the ruthlessly ambitious Hobart (Ben Platt) now sets his sights on one of New York’s State senate seats for what will be his first real grownup political campaign. Incumbent State senator Dede Standish (Judith Light) initially seems secure, but her re-election campaign is soon threatened by rumours of the middle-aged veteran politician’s “throuple” polyamorous relationship with both her husband and boyfriend.

Hobart, now supported by most of his allies and a few rivals from his earlier campaign, soon appears to be making headway, despite the potential risk of exposure over his own three-way relationship with his girlfriend, Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) and his former rival, Astrid Sloan (Lucy Boynton). Ruthlessly exploiting the environment issue in a bid to establish a foothold among younger voters, Hobart soon becomes engaged in a protracted dirty tricks campaign waged against and also by, his more experienced political opponent, Standish.

More sustained than the first season which began promising much, but imploded fairly quickly, The Politician – Season 2 is enlivened by an enjoyable turn by Bette Midler as Standish’s passionate campaign manager. Hadassah Gold. Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch), one of the most memorable characters in the first season is back too (although doesn’t do a lot), while Gwyneth Paltrow returns as Hobart’s mother, herself engaged in a somewhat far-fetched campaign to become Governor of California driven by a plan to lead the state out of the USA entirely.

While Season 1 was almost wrecked completely by the terrible sixth episode The Voter, the sixth episode here (The Voters) deploys similar tactics to look at a mother and daughter’s separate experiences of Election Day. Thankfully, this time, it works. While as its Season 1 equivalent was derailed by its determination to show the unusual vices of its drug, sex and violence-obsessed subject, this time the tensions between the two more rounded characters provide us with a more valuable insight into the generational battles surrounding the campaign.

Ben Platt is good as before as the charismatic, scheming Payton Hobart, a sort of younger, better looking Richard Nixon for the 21st century. No less self-serving and paranoid than the disgraced 37th US president, Pitch Perfect’s Platt’s potential president is certainly a better singer than Nixon ever was and slightly better on the piano.

A fine series then, if perhaps not a great one. Not quite a full Obama but better than a Ford, this is a welcome escape from the real life horrors of the Trump era.

And the title sequence is still great.

History of British comics timeline: The 1990s

1990

Judge Dredd The Megazine begins. It is still gong today. Early stories include America and Young Death: Boyhood of a Superfiend.

In 2000AD itself, Judge Dredd faces Necropolis. Rogue Trooper appears in his own annual for the first and. to date, only time.

Edgy monthly Revolver featuring a dark new version of Dan Dare as well as Rogan Gosh and Happenstance and Kismet launches.

With many comics now struggling, adult comic Viz is thriving. Billy the Fish gets his own TV series, voiced by Harry Enfield.

Dennis the Menace TV cartoon on the Cartoon Channel. The Beano celebrates its 2,500th issue

After 34 years, The Beezer joins The Topper (by this point rebranded as Topper 90). The Beezer and Topper is formed.

After 21 years, Whizzer and Chips merges into Buster. Sid’s Snake, Sweeny Todd, Joker and Sweet Tooth are amongst those moving in.

1991

Viewed as a 2000AD for the 1990s, Toxic! featuring Accident Man and The Bogie Man appears. It folds within the year.

A short-lived TV version of Viz’s Roger Mellie The Man on the Telly appears. Roger is voiced by Peter Cook.

Lord Snooty, at this point the longest running Beano story ever, having appeared since 1938 ends. He returns later.

Mandy and Judy merge, later becoming M & J.

Starblazer ends. Revolver merges into Crisis. Crisis ends. For many British comcs, the crisis continues.

Dredd meets Batman in graphic novel, Judgement In Gotham.

1992

The game begins: Button Man debuts in 2000AD.

A TV film of The Bogie Man starring Robbie Coltrane airs.

1993

The final whistle blows for Roy of the Rovers comic. The second Eagle also ends, after just over a decade.

Beezer and Topper ends. Beryl the Peril joins The Dandy, The Numskulls find a home in The Beano. The Beano Video is released.

The controversial Big Dave appears in 2000AD.

The luckless sailor, Jonah, once of The Beano (as well as the short-lived Buddy), re-emerges in The Dandy.

1994

Look-In switches itself off.

1995

The final Deadline.

Two films, the long awaited Judge Dredd starring Sylvester Stallone and Tank Girl film starring Lori Petty are both released. Both are both are critical and commercial failures.

Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future is launched. It s intended to capitalize on the hoped for success of the new Judge Dredd film. Sinister Dexter first appears in the regular 2000AD.

1996

Judge Dredd: Lawman of the Future fails. 2000AD (now struggling) reaches its 1,000th issue.

1997

M & J ends.

The Dandy turns 60.

1998

The Beano turns 60. The Beano Club replaces the Dennis the Menace Fan Club. Dennis’s sister Bea is born.

Nikolai Dante begins in 2000AD.

1999

Buster ends after forty years. Both the Buster story itself and many stories which have been running in Buster and other now long defunct titles such as Whizzer and Chips, Whoopee! and Wow! and Knockout since the 1960s and 1970s such as Sid’s Snake, Joker, Ivor Lott & Tony Broke and Sweeny Todd all come to an end.

2000

After a tough decade, 2000AD, appropriately enough, enjoys a big comeback from this year onward.

As of June 2020, it, Viz, Judge Dredd The Megazine, Doctor Who Monthly, Commando and The Beano are the only titles mentioned in any of these timelines which are still going today.

Chris Hallam is a freelance writer. Originally from Peterborough, he now lives in Exeter with his wife. He writes for a number of magazines including Yours Retro, Comic Scene and Best of British. He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and wrote A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He was also the sole author of the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars annuals as well as the 2015 Transformers annual.

History of British comics timeline: The 1980s

1980

The Beano celebrates its 2,000th issue.

Nutty is launched. It’s most memorable story, Bananaman quickly moves to the front page.

The first Judge Dredd annual is published. In 2000AD, Judge Death and Judge Anderson both appear as characters in the Dredd strip.

Speed comes and goes, merging into Tiger.

Mergers: Misty merges into Tammy. The Crunch merges into Hotspur. Penny merges into Jinty.

Doctor Who Weekly goes monthly

Buddy begins.

Smudge debuts in The Beano.

1981

A new version of Girl is launched.

The TV-themed Tops begins.

Mergers: Scoop merges into Victor. Jinty merges into Tammy. Hotspur merges into Victor.

The Nemesis the Warlock saga begins properly in 2000AD. The war also begins for Rogue Trooper while Judge Dredd battles an outbreak of Blockmania.

1982

High quality monthly Warrior begins. It is not especially war-like and features V For Vendetta, Marvelman (later Miracleman) and Laser Eraser and Pressbutton.

A new version of The Eagle begins. Dan Dare (or rather his great-great-grandson) appears as do the photo stories Doomlord and Joe Soap.

Judge Dredd fights the Apocalypse War.

Wow! begins.

Jackpot merges into Buster. Milly O’Naire and Penny Less merge with Buster’s Ivor Lott and Tony Broke strip (as the duo’s girlfriends) disappearing from the story in the late 1980s.

Cheeky merges into Whoopee!

The first Beano comic libraries (smaller, monthly comics, featuring one extended story) appear. Other comics follow suit.

1983

Nutty’s Bananaman gets his own TV series.

School Fun begins lessons (briefly).

Spike kicks off.

Mergers: Buddy merges into Spike. Wow! merges into Whoopee! (becoming Whoopee! and Wow!). Debbie (est: 1973) merges into Mandy.

Slaine goes into battle in 2000AD. Extra-terrestrial Skizz also debuts.

What will happen next? Cliff Hanger begins in Buster.

1984

High profile horror comic Scream! begins and ends. It merges into Eagle. The Thirteenth Floor is amongst the stories to move across.

Champ begins.

The Ballad of Halo Jones begins in 2000AD (it ends in 1986). Female-led strips are still a rarity in the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Nemesis is joined by the ABC Warriors in The Gothic Empire.

Mergers: TV Comic (est: 1951) switches itself off. Tops merges into Suzy. Tammy (est: 1971) merges into Girl. Spike merges into Champ. School Fun merges into Buster. School Belle is amongst those joining Buster.

Dennis’s pet pig, Rasher gets his own strip in The Beano (until 1988).

1985

Adult comic Viz featuring Roger Mellie the Man on The Telly, Billy The Fish and Sid the Sexist goes nationwide.

Whoopee! (est: 1974) merges into Whizzer and Chips. Warrior gives up the fight. Tiger (est: 1954) merges into The Eagle. Some strips move into Roy of the Rovers. Champ merges into Victor.

Judge Anderson gets a story of her own in 2000AD.

Nutty merges into The Dandy. Bananaman continues on TV until 1986 and continues to thrive in The Dandy. Bananaman appears in several of his own annuals in this decade too.

Ivy the Terrible debuts in The Beano.

Computer Warrior goes into battle in The Eagle.

Captain Britain Monthly, Hoot and Nikki all debut.

Beeb begins (and ends).

1986

The anarchic Oink! launches. ‘Edited’ by Uncle Pigg, stars include Pete and his Pimple, Burp The Smelly Alien From Outer Space and Hector Vector and his Talking T-Shirt.

Diceman, an RPG version of 2000AD runs out of luck quickly and ends.

Hoot merges into The Dandy. Cuddles and Dimples unite in one strip.

Captain Britain Monthly ends.

Calamity James begins in The Beano. Gnasher briefly goes missing in a high profile Dennis the Menace storyline. He soon returns with a litter of puppies including Gnipper. Gnasher and Gnipper now replaces Gnasher’s Tale as a story.

1987

Nipper begins then merges into Buster.

Zenith begins in 2000AD. Now ten years’ old, the comic adopts a more ‘mature’ approach.

The Dandy’s 50th birthday.

1988

Crisis, a more political and grown-up sister title to 2000AD begins featuring Third World War and The New Statesmen.

Deadline comic/magazine starring Tank Girl begins.

The Beano’s 50th birthday.

Mergers: Battle (est: 1974) merges into Eagle. Oink! merges into Buster.

1989

Nikki merges into Bunty. It’s Wicked! begins and ends.

The ‘original’ Dan Dare returns to The Eagle.

Fast Forward, a much-publicised TV-themed comic/magazine launches.

Whizzer and Chips (now struggling) celebrates its 20th birthday.

History of British comics timeline: The 1950s

1950

The Eagle launches featuring the futuristic Dan Dare – Pilot of the Future on the front page. His first story-line sees him traveling to Venus where he encounters the Treens led by the malevolent Mekon. Other early Eagle stories include PC49, Harris Tweed and Riders of the Range.

Canine hero, Black Bob becomes the first Dandy character to star in his own annual. Seven more Black Bob books appear before 1965.

School Friend begins. Stories include The Silent Three At St Kit’s. It is reportedly the biggest selling girls’ comic ever, at one point selling one million copies a week.

1951

Dennis the Menace makes his debut in The Beano. Biffo the Bear remains on the front page.

Girl, a sister comic to The Eagle is launched. Early stories include Kitty Hawke and Her All-Girl Air Crew, Lettice Leefe: The Greenest Girl In School and nautical adventure, Captain Starling.

Dan Dare embarks on The Red Moon Mystery.

1952

Dan Dare is Marooned on Mercury. Luck of the Legion also debuts in the comic this year.

Adventure comic, Lion, a potential rival to The Eagle is launched. Memorable characters include Robot Archie (initially referred to as The Jungle Robot).

Gerald Campion debuts in the title role in TV’s Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School. The character first appeared in Magnet in 1908.

1953

The Topper first appears. Mickey the Monkey appears on the cover but the most memorable character is Beryl the Peril.

A new comic Robin is launched. It is intended to be a companion paper to The Eagle. It is aimed at the under-eights and features TV’s Andy Pandy as a regular character.

A vintage year for The Beano with Little Plum, Minnie the Minx, General Jumbo and Roger the Dodger all making their first appearance. A school-based story, When The Bell Rings also debuts. This later becomes The Bash Street Kids.

Dan Dare launches Operation Saturn.

TV Fun is launched, accompanying the long-running Film Fun and Radio Fun.

1954

Yet another companion to The Eagle appears. Swift is aimed at even younger readers than Robin. Tarna: Jungle Boy, Mono the Moon Man and a comic version of radio’s Educating Archie all appear.

Tiger comic arrives. The first issue features footballing legend, Roy of the Rovers.

The first Desperate Dan ‘annual’ appears. Only four more appear in 1978, 1990, 1991 and 1992.

The Dan Dare story, Prisoners of Space begins.

1955

The first Dennis the Menace Book is published. Dennis is the first Beano character to get his own annual. He now appears in colour on the back page of The Beano every week.

Keyhole Kate leaves The Dandy. She will return.

Dan Dare appears in The Man From Nowhere.

1956

New arrival The Beezer joins The Topper on newsagent shelves. Ginger dominates the front page.

When The Bell Rings, in The Beano, changes its name to The Bash Street Kids.

1957

Much-loved children’s TV series Captain Pugwash begins. It was originally a short-lived story in The Eagle in 1950.

Jonah, the hopeless sailor, sets sail in The Beano.

Amnesiac Mark Question (‘The Boy With A Future But No Past!’) debuts in The Eagle. The Reign of the Robots begins in Dan Dare.

1958

Bunty begins. Strips include The Four Marys (‘Fun at boarding school with a frolicsome foursome’).

Colonel Blink, the Short-Sighted Gink stumbles onto the pages of The Beezer.

Topper’s Beryl the Peril appears in her first annual, this Christmas.

1959

The Three Bears blast off in The Beano.

The long-running Hotspur folds. A text-based story paper rather than a comic, it is replaced by The New Hotspur which is definitely a comic.

TV review: The Other One

Following the sudden death of family patriarch Colin ( Simon Greenall), the Walcott family are soon in for another rude shock. For, it soon emerges that in addition to his union with the now bereaved Tess (Rebecca Front) and their grown-up daughter Cathy (Ellie White), Colin was conducting a secret affair. He has thus also left behind a chain-smoking mistress, Marilyn (Siobhan Finneran) and another daughter, also called Catherine (Lauren Socha), known as ‘Cat’ who is almost exactly the same age as her twenty-something half-sister.

Understandably furious, middle-class Tess embarks on a series of ill-considered relationships with men, played by actors from Drop the Dead Donkey. The already neurotic, Cathy, meanwhile, continues with her career and her unpromising engagement to the nice but fatally weak-willed Marcus (Amit Shah). Much to her mother’s horror, she soon also develops a close friendship with her more confident, wrong-side-of-the-tracks.

It is this essentially good natured heart to Holly Walsh and Pippa Brown’s new sitcom, which follows up the pilot first aired in 2017, which really elevates it to the level of one of the best new British sitcoms of recent years. The cast, particularly Ellie White, are all brilliant and there are a number of excellent supporting characters, notably Stephen Tomkinson’s sinister climate change denier and ex-Geography teacher and Caroline Quentin’s barmy but eternally optimistic auntie. Quentin’s character would warrant a spin-off series

And despite all the jokes about class, Marcus’s disastrous ‘dick pics’ disaster and the essential betrayal at the heart of the Walcott’s marriage, there’s a real sweetness to the developing relationship between the two Catherines which makes this a joy to watch.

More please!

All episodes available on the BBC iPlayer,

Book review: Do You Dream of Terra-Two?

Could you ever imagine going into space?

Could you then imagine spending twenty-three years there, beginning your journey just as you are about to leave your teens, only to end it just after the point you’ve entered middle age?

And could you do all this knowing even then that you won’t be returning to Earth? That instead of being reunited with your surviving loved ones, you will be charged with a new mission: setting up a colony on a new planet, a planet identical to our own discovered in space but as yet uninhabited? Namely, Terra-Two?

This is the fate the group of teenagers in Temi Oh’s first-class debut novel have keenly volunteered for, having being whittled down to a select few who will join a number of older, more experienced crew for an epic journey on the Damocles to the new world. The name of the ship is only one of a number of indicators which – rightly or wrongly – suggest the crew are in for a difficult journey. They are a mixed bunch of characters and despite vigorous psychiatric screening during their years of training, it soon becomes clear they are as prone to human flaws as anyone else.

The mission begins in 2012, suggesting the ship will reach its destination in the mid-2030s. But despite references to the London Olympics, the 2008 financial crash and Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box-sets, this is not quite the year 2012 as we may remember it. Clearly, the course of human history has diverged from own own at various points. Space technology has clearly advanced way beyond anything achieved in the first fifth of the 21st century while Britain is for once at the forefront of the global space programme.

Despite a surprisingly high number of errors in the Amazon Kindle version of the book, his is a thoroughly enjoyable and gripping debut novel from British author Temi-Oh full of believable and relatable characters.

TV review: Spooks Series 1 (2002)

Spooks first appeared amidst a blaze of publicity on BBC One in April 2002. Promoted with the catchy slogan, “It’s M-I5, not 9 to 5,” the show was an instant success and with it’s exciting, edgy story-lines and watchable performances, it’s not hard to see why. Eighteen years on, it’s three original stars, Matthew Macfadyen, Keeley Hawes and David Oyelowo are all still a regular presence on our screens . Macfadyen, who married his co-star Keeley Hawes in 2004, was indeed, briefly seen as the favourite to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond, before Daniel Craig got the part instead.

Spooks introduces us to the world of spies. In the US, where the word ‘Spooks’ is sometimes used as a racial insult, the show was simply called ‘M-I5.’ Although nobody ever actually says, “it’s M-15, not 9 to 5″ in the show, this phrase aptly sums up the central dilemma experienced by Tom Quinn (Macfadyen) as he tries to juggle his demanding but secret career with his developing relationship with single mother Ellie (Esther Hall) and her young daughter. Quinn is initially known to the family as ‘Matthew,” of course, the actor’s actual first name.

Broadcast only a few months after the 2001 September 11th attacks, these first six episodes appeared at a time of heightened tension with story-lines including a bomb attack in Britain by a Far Right US anti-abortion group, a siege at the Turkish consulate by Kurdish rebels, some shenanigans involving the late Tim Pigott-Smith as a Jonathan Aitken-like disgraced minister and Anthony Head playing a veteran M- I5 agent who goes rogue while attempting to infiltrate a group planning to disrupt a visit to Britain by unpopular US President George W. Bush.

Veteran actress Jenny Agutter (now also known for Call The Midwife) also appears as does Hugh Laurie in a role which bridges the gap between the 1990s Jeeves and Wooster comedy roles he was then best known for and the more serious parts in House MD and The Night Manager which lay ahead of him. Future celebrity chef Lisa Faulkner also makes a flash in the pan appearance as agent Helen Flynn.

Much of the technology in the early days of Spooks now seems almost laughably dated with the characters relying heavily on CD-ROM discs, old-fashioned looking mobile phones and very slow downloads in a number of scenes. Macfadyen recently starred in Quiz, a dramatisation of the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire cheating scandal and ironically the title sequence and music to Spooks, while presumably seen as flashy and hi-tech at the time, now feel very much like that of a daytime quiz show.

That is not to say Spooks – Series One is only now entertaining for its unintentional comedy value. Far from it. With this and all nine subsequent series now available on the BBC iPlayer (the show ended in 2011, later spawning a moderately successful film version Spooks: The Greater Good in 2015), this is the perfect opportunity to enjoy or enjoy again the opening episodes of a long-running British spy series which essentially got off to an excellent start.

Begin your own surveillance campaign immediately.

TV review: Normal People

As the nation has grown accustomed to lockdown in the wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, many have naturally turned more frequently to their TVs for entertainment, with some series inevitably faring better than others during this highly unusual period.

One notable success story in the last two weeks has been the new adaptation of Sally Rooney’s acclaimed 2018 novel, Normal People. Although only half way through its 12 episode terrestrial TV run (episodes 5 and 6 will be screened tonight – that is, Monday May 11th 2020 on BBC One from 9pm), the series which is directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, has been a huge success on the BBC iPlayer. It has, in fact, become the most requested ever show on the BBC streaming service, beating a record set by the first series of action-packed international drama, Killing Eve in 2018.

NORMAL PEOPLE

Normal People is essentially the tale of the on-off love story over a number of years between a young couple, Marianne Sheldon and Connell Waldron, who begin a relationship initially while as teenagers nearing the end of their schooldays in County Sligo in the Irish Republic. Both are very bright and have much in common, although these things are not necessarily immediately obvious to those around them. At school, Connell (Paul Mescal) is sporty, amiable and popular. In the US, he would be described as a ‘jock’ and keeps his more sensitive literary side fairly well-hidden. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), in contrast, is clever and sensitive too but at school is spiky, rebellious and more socially intimidating. Although, she too, is attractive, she is so unpopular, the other pupils rarely acknowledge this, perhaps not even to themselves. Her relationship with Connell is conducted in the utmost secrecy, during their time at school.

Although he has a happier home life, the Waldrons are much less well-off than the Sheldons, Connell’s mother in fact working as a cleaner in Marianne’s mother’s house. We soon learn Marianne’s domestic existence is deeply unhappy, however. The household is unloving, cold, sterile and ultimately abusive. As the couple’s relationship progresses to Trinity College, Dublin, the two see their roles effectively reversed with Marianne becoming much confident and at ease than the now more awkward Connell, having reinvented herself in her new largely middle-class environment.

Doubtless some of the series’ popularity stems from the potentially voyeuristic appeal of the show’s frequent sex scenes, though these are never pornographic or salacious in tone. Beautifully acted, particularly by its two leads who are surely now both destined for stardom, sensitive and intelligent in its portrayal of an evolving relationship, Normal People is a drama which deserves its success.

There is talk now of producing a TV version of Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, or perhaps a TV sequel to Normal People (no literary sequel to the book yet exists).

But, in truth, Normal People is that rarest of things: a TV series which is actually better than the novel which inspired it.

The Best Sitcoms of the 21st century so far: Miranda (2009-15)

Some might balk at the inclusion of popular mainstream favourite Miranda on this list. But while Miranda the series, like the character of Miranda herself, may be less obviously ‘cool’ than some of its contemporaries, it is extremely likeable and often very funny.

Writing a self-titled sitcom can be a risky business. The sitcom ‘Josh’ for example, has never really fully demonstrated the excellence of its creator Jpsh Widdecombe while comedian Rhona Cameron never really recovered from the failure of her own vehicle, ‘Rhona.’ But the huge success of Miranda transformed Miranda Hart from supporting roles in Hyperdrive and Not Going Out into a household name who now occasionally appears in Hollywood films.

In the sitcom, Miranda is a tall, awkward thirty-something who runs a joke shop with her business-minded, Heather Smalls-loving friend Stevie (Sarah Hadland) and who pines after her old Uni friend, Gary (Tom Ellis), a good looking local chef. Miranda is hampered in her daily life by her intrusive overbearing mother, Penny (Patricia Hodge) who is obsessed with marrying Miranda off, her dippy posh old school chum Tilly (Sally Phillips) and her own tendency to frequently fall over, lose her clothes or occasionally nervously break into song in public. Hart is a master of physical comedy, frequently delivering mischievous asides or meaningful sidelong looks to the camera, rather as Phoebe Waller-Bridge later did in the much less cosy Fleabag.

Full of catchphrases, Miranda was as mainstream as sitcoms get. But before it was fatally overtaken by an over-obsession with a distracting ‘love triangle’ story-line in the disappointing final  episodes, it was genuinely excellent, uplifting, enjoyable, well performed and ultimately… such fun.

Book review: The Human Factor

Thirty years ago, the Cold War came to a peaceful end. Germany was reunified. A wave of mostly peaceful uprisings occurred across the so-called Eastern Bloc in 1989 before finally in 1991, the Soviet Union itself disintegrated completely.

Such developments would have seemed unthinkable only a few years earlier. Russian communism had dominated Eastern Europe since 1917 with the intense rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States threatening to destroy humanity following the superpower arms build-up which escalated soon after the end of the Second World War.

As Archie Brown demonstrates in this book the fact that this amazing development was able to occur at all owes itself almost entirely to ‘the human factor,’ namely the unique personalities of three world leaders during the second half of the 1980s. The personality of one of these leaders in fact, was especially critical.

Many in the west were alarmed when Ronald Reagan won the presidency in November 1980. A onetime Hollywood actor who had been a liberal Democrat until his early fifties, Reagan had strong enough conservative credentials by 1980, that he was able to preside over a thaw in East-West relations without stoking fears that he might be appeasing the Soviets. The British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher meanwhile was not as slavish in her support for Reagan and the US as is sometimes made out. She and Reagan were friends and shared the same ideological free market perspective, but there were occasional fallings out. Crucially, on the major issue of East-West relations, however, she and the 40th US president always stood shoulder to shoulder.

However, it was the third actor, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev who was utterly indispensable to the whole process. Make no mistake: without Mikhail Gorbachev there would have been no end to the Cold War. The Berlin Wall would not have fallen. The USSR would not have collapsed. Remarkable leaders though they in many ways were, the same cannot be said of Reagan or the so-called ‘Iron Lady.’

Gorbachev’s attitude and politics were utterly unique within Soviet politics at the time. Nor is it true that he (or anyone) was browbeaten into submission by the United States’ continued hard line. There is no evidence to support this whatsoever.

As the only one of these three figures still alive in May 2020, the world really owes the elderly Mr. Gorbachev a huge debt of thanks. As Archie Brown notes, it was he who made all the difference.

Gorbachev, not Reagan and certainly not Thatcher, ended the Cold War.

The Human Factor: Gorbachev, Reagan and Thatcher and the End of the Cold War, by Archie Brown. Out Now. Published by Oxford University.

Book review: The Art of Comic Book Drawing

“Look! Up there in the sky! Is it a bird? Is it plane? No, it’s…er…well, I’m not sure who it is actually. Do you know?”

It’s true: you won’t see any superheroes you recognise in this illustrated guide to drawing comics. Though undeniably superhero-orientated – the guide begins by encouraging the reader to draw basic cartoon images before instilling in them the techniques necessary to draw and create images in the familiar superhero comic style – the book does not feature any established characters from either the Marvel or DC universes.

Your friendly neighbourhood Spiderman is thus not here: he has presumably moved to another neighbourhood. The X-Men have gone ex-directory. Instead, we get a bunch of superheroes who are in no need for secret identities. They are already completely unknown.

But this is not to disparage this book. For one thing, the artwork throughout is consistently excellent. The book’s creators have conjured up a plethora of characters who not only look good but bear no real resemblance to any existing characters. There are no Incredible Bulks or Superbmen to be found here.

More importantly, the book does what it’s supposed to do, guiding the reader step by step through the stages necessary to achieve the level of comic book artist excellence.

Perhaps you won’t get all the way there? Well, never mind. It’s good fun and as much of the world continues to endure an enforced period of social distancing until the COVID-19 outbreak is over, there are certainly worse things you could be doing that this.

Besides: if you really do want to draw Doctor Strange, Thor, Wonder Woman, Black Widow or Batman, nobody’s stopping you getting some practice in by attempting to recreate their adventures by sketching some images inspired by one of their comics.

But if you want to do it well, you’ll probably want to look at this book first.

The Art of Comic Book Drawing. Published by: Quarto. Maury Aaseng, Bob Berry, Jim Campbell, Dana Muise, Joe Oesterle. Out: now.

The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Spaced (1999-2001)

Spaced is the story of Tim and Daisy, two young people in need of somewhere to live.

Daisy is a frustrated writer, keen to escape life in a squat. Tim is a small-time cartoonist who has been forced to move out after discovering his girlfriend has been having an affair with his best friend.

Together they hatch a plan. Despite not being a couple or even friends really (they have met by chance in a café), having spied a reasonably priced flat to rent advertised as being only available to “professional couples only,” they decide to present themselves as a happily married couple to the apartment’s landlady.

This in essence is the premise of Spaced. Although as Tim himself would say, “it’s a bit more complicated than that.”

Spaced ran for two series on Channel 4 in 1999 and 2001 and proved the perfect calling card for its two writers and stars, Simon Pegg (Tim) and Jessica Stevenson (now Jessica Hynes, who plays Daisy) with the show’s unseen force, the hugely talented director, Edgar Wright also making an impact.

Straddling the millennia, technically only the second of the two series is a 21st century sitcom and thus eligible for this list. But who cares? Both series are great anyway, for a number of reasons…

Firstly, whether its Tim railing against the evils of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (a film which Peter Serafinowicz who plays his hated love rival, Duane Benzie actually features in), Daisy attempting to write her masterpiece to the theme from Murder She Wrote, or Wright skilfully evoking memories of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Spaced is packed to the brim with clever popular culture references.

Secondly, many of the episodes are masterpieces in their own right. Tim and his war-obsessed friend Mike played paintball, long before the guys on Peep Show or US shows like Big Bang Theory and Community did it. Another episode skilfully turns the TV show, Robot Wars into a real life conflict while ‘Gone’ sees the stars engaged in an ingenious mimed gun battle governed by ‘masculine telepathy’ at the end of a drunken night out. And that’s not to mention the celebrated Epiphanies episode in which Tim’s odd friend Wheels (Michael Smiley) takes the gang clubbing.

Then, there’s the brilliant supporting cast. Pegg’s real life best friend and flatmate, the then unknown Nick Frost plays Tim’s war-obsessed pal, Mike, a man once expelled from the Territorial Army for “stealing a tank and attempting to invade Paris”. Or Brian (Friday Night Dinner’s Mark Heap) an eccentric artist who has an ‘arrangement’ with landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin). There’s also a supporting cast which includes a whole host of rising comedy stars including David Walliams, Paul Kaye, Bill Bailey and Ricky Gervais.

But finally there’s the best reason of all: Spaced is likeable, endless quotable, highly watchable and very, very funny.

TV review: The Stranger

2020. Available on Netflix.

Seemingly happily married with a nice house and two children, Adam Price (Richard Armitage) has a good life. Or at least, he thinks he does. That’s until ‘the stranger’ (Hannah John-Kamen) turns up.

One day, while he’s watching one of his kids play football, a young woman in a baseball cap approaches him and starts to make troubling and damaging accusations about his wife (Dervla Kirwan). Upsetting though this is, the stranger’s allegations cannot be easily dismissed. She clearly has insider knowledge and her claims seem to have the ring of truth about them. What should Adam do?

This is just the starting point for Netflix’s British-set crime drama, The Stranger which is based on US author Harlan Coben’s 2015 novel. And while never hard to follow, there’s a lot going on in this intensely plotted, incredibly gripping thriller.

Coben isn’t Albert Camus but his story certainly raises lots of interesting questions. Should Adam confront his wife or leave things be? Who is the stranger anyway? How does she know so much? Is she a force for good or evil? Does Adam have any skeletons in his own closet? Furthermore, what exactly happened at the wild teenage party Adam’s son attended? Why did a teenage boy end up running naked through the woods? Can Adam save ex-cop Stephen Rea’s house from destruction? And, most bizarre of all, why did someone decapitate an alpaca in the street?

Totally compelling from beginning to end, The Stranger also features a rare straight role for Jennifer Saunders.

Veganuary 2020 Restaurant review: Comptoir Libanais, Exeter

Written with the assistance of Nicky Hallam

Guildhall Shopping Centre, Queen St, Exeter EX4 3HP

Three months after our last visit, my wife and I were happy to return to the Exeter branch of Lebanese restaurant chain Comptoir Libanis on a special trip in honour of Veganuary.

Although neither of us are practicing vegans, we are both sympathetic to the vegan cause. My wife, to her credit, at least, had a fully vegan meal. I caved and chose to have some meat. But I won’t dwell on that.

The restaurant is, as before, welcoming and pleasant to visit. Staff are friendly and attentive. Even the toilets are nice with paintings of Hollywood stars of yesteryear adorning the walls. As a writer for Yours Retro magazine, I appreciated this.

The restaurant was also as good as it was before in catering for my nut allergy, removing all pistachios from the first course. Most restaurants have improved their standards on this recently, but there is still room for improvement at many.

Not here! They were great about it.

The restaurant seemed fairly quiet for a Friday night. January is, of course, traditionally a quiet month for restaurants. The other restaurants we passed looked quiet too. Comptoir Libanais looked quieter still.

First course:

The aubergine was very tasty, soft and held together well and each bite was accompanied by a pop of pomegranate freshness. This heat situation was, for me, made worse by the meal having far too much chilli on it. It practically blew the back of my head off and got my meal off to a rude start.

I much preferred the hommos, which had a smooth, creamy texture. The falafel was crunchy and the pink pickled turnip and mint provided a colourful combination. The spicy harissa sauce made it impossible to eat in full (for me anyway) though.

Second course:

The tagine was perfect comfort food. The vermicelli rice made a nice change and there were peppers with aubergine, chickpeas, a tasty sauce with tomatoes and pomegranate seeds on top.

Overall: a good experience, but too spicy for me!

The 2020s vs the 1920s

Which key events of the Roaring 20s are likely to happen again in the next decade?
1. A General Strike: possible but unlikely.
2. Stock Market Crash: very likely, but hopefully on a smaller scale.
3. Silly dancing trends, fashion and slang adopted: certain.
4. Republicans win 3 presidential elections as US retreats into isolationism: sadly seems very plausible.
5. Italy descends into fascism: I hope not!
6. Brits triumph at Olympics after running in slow motion to Vangelis music on a beach: er…
7. The Queen and Sir David Attenborough are born. Unlikely. In fact, probably quite the opposite?
Happy New Decade readers!

Book review: Viz: The Trumpeter’s Lips 2020

As the rosette emblazoned (or, at least, drawn) on the cover reminds us, Viz has been doing this for forty years now.

Yes, that’s right. There have now been four whole decades of the popular British adult comic, which is ‘Not For Sale To Children’. In theory, this should mean it has now reached middle age or at least some semblance of maturity?

Has it though? Well, as Viz’s longest running character, the foul-mouthed TV personality, Roger Mellie, The Man on the Telly would say: “Hello, good evening and bollocks.”

In other words, “no”. As another publication which lasted in print for roughly half as long as Viz’s 40 years to date once memorably put it, this is a magazine “for men who should know better.”

This edition of the Viz annual, promises “a brassy fanfare of crowd pleasing blasts from issues 262-271.” So what’s included?

Roger Mellie appears opposite Gemma Collins on a celebrity version of Channel 4’s Naked Attraction. Aldridge Prior, The Hopeless Liar gets his perfect job: as President Trump’s press secretary: (“The President can do a one inch punch just like Bruce Lee and it would instantly kill you. FACT!”). Raffles, the Gentleman Thug is up to his usual tricks, (“Don’t forget your red flag, Bunny! We’ve got to absquatulate before the Scuffers get here!”). Old favourites return (“There is precious little sunshine for those living in the shadow of The Bottom Inspectors”), alongside strange newcomers (“Wally Walton’s Emergency Scorpion Squad and Wall To Wall Carpet Warehouse”). If you’ve read Viz before, you’ll know what to expect.

Viz has never been just a comic, however. Nearly half of it is made up of features usually satirising the celebrity-obsessed culture of the tabloid press. Highlights in this book include ’20 Things You Never Knew About Hats,” and a spoof of ‘Take A Break’ magazine called ‘Take A Shit’. There’s also a special festive edition of Roger Mellie’s Profanisaurus.

Mrs. Brady: Old Lady. Letterbocks. Gilbert Ratchet. Big Vern. The Broon Windsors (a bizarre amalgamation of the family from the long running comic strip, The Broons and the Royal Family). Mr Logic (“He’s An Acute Localised Body Smart in the Rectal Area”). I’ve really only scraped the surface of the world of Viz here.

Perhaps you think Viz is crude, vulgar and disgusting. Perhaps you think it is sometimes or often quite brilliant. You are both right.

Or as senile Daily Telegraph reader Major Misunderstanding says to an estate agent and his clients who he has mistaken for a group of young anti-Trump protesters, “Go back to your bedrooms and play on your ‘You-Tubes. Nobody cares tuppence for what you think.”

Chris Hallam has written a feature on Viz for the magazine, Comic Scene Volume 2, Issue 11, published in mid-December 2019

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 2

Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) articulates an interesting theory in the second episode of the third season of Peter Morgan’s The Crown.

The theory states simply that just as there is a clear pattern of steady, reliable, generally boring Royals, such as Queen Victoria, George V, George VI and the Queen herself, there is equally a parallel lineage of wild, reckless and hedonistic rebels. Consider: Edward VII, George V’s brother Prince Eddy or the notorious Duke of Windsor. Just as the older Queen, played by Helen Mirren in Morgan’s 2006 film, famously held back from shooting a stag, the other bunch would probably have ended up riding it roughshod over the hills and far away.

The Royal couple here are clearly thinking about the Queen’s own naughty little sister, Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter), glamorous and popular, but also increasingly wayward as she tours the mid-1960s USA. Viewers at home will, of course, be wondering how this theory applies to Prince Harry. And Prince Andrew.

At any rate, Margaret, at this point, gets an opportunity to restore Anglo-US relations which have been damaged by the new Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s (admirable) refusal to join America in the disastrous quagmire of Vietnam. The princess is thus dispatched to the White House in use her charms to win over President Lyndon B. Johnson (Clancy Brown) in the hope that L.B.J. will go all the way in resolving a British balance of payments crisis.

TV review: The Crown. Season 3, Episode 1

The Crown is back. We rejoin proceedings at the dawn of a new era.

For after two glorious seasons with the marvelous Claire Foy playing the Princess and young Queen in her twenties and thirties, we now give way to the new age of Olivia Colman. The transition is neatly symbolised by a tactful discussion of a new Royal portrait for a new range of postage stamps. It is 1964 and the monarch is in her late thirties, what might normally be seen as her “middle years.”

“A great many changes. But there we are,” Colman’s Queen remarks. “Age is rarely kind to anyone. Nothing one can do about it. One just has to get on with it.”

Other changes are afoot too. Then, as now, a general election is in progress, resulting in the election of the first Labour Prime Minister of the Queen’s reign, Harold Wilson. Jason Watkins captures Wilson’s manner perfectly, although not yet his wit. In time, we now know Wilson would become the favourite of the Queen’s Prime Ministers. At this stage, however, both figures are wary of each other: the working class Wilson seems socially insecure and chippy while the Queen has heard an unfounded rumour from Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies – a good likeness) that Wilson is a KGB agent.

Elsewhere, another age comes to an end as the elderly Churchill breathes his last. In a rare piece of casting continuity, John Lithgow briefly resumes his role.

Suspicion also surrounds Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, Anthony Blunt. Although not exactly a dead ringer for the art historian and Soviet spy, Samuel West is well cast as Blunt. West is a fine actor anyway but his lineage here is impeccable. His mother, Prunella Scales played the Queen in the Alan Bennett drama, A Question of Attribution, which was about Blunt and which parts of this episode strongly resemble. Blunt then was played by James Fox, whose brother Edward, incidentally played Churchill in The Audience, the Peter Morgan play which inspired this series. West also played the Queen’s father George VI in the (not very good) film, Hyde Park on the Hudson. His wife, the future Queen Mother was played by one Olivia Colman. West’s father, Timothy, of course, famously played George VI’s grandfather, Edward VII (and also played Churchill, several times), while Colman won an Oscar for playing the Queen’s ancestor, Queen Anne in The Favourite, earlier this year.

Fellow Oscar winner, Helena Bonham Carter is, of course, now cast as the Queen’s glamorous but troubled sister, Princess Margaret here, replacing the excellent Vanessa Kirby. The makers clearly feel obliged to feature Margaret frequently in this episode, presumably because of Bonham Carter’s star status, but aside from much drinking, rudeness, singing and fretting about her wayward photographer husband Armstrong-Jones (Ben Daniels), who is pictured motorbiking about a lot, she does little of interest.

The next episode promises to be much more Margaret-orientated…

The Crown

Book review: Where Power Stops, by David Runciman

Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.

The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.

Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.

Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.

The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.

Book review: Quentin Tarantino – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work

Quentin Tarantino – The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work, by Ian Nathan. Published by White Lion

One day, nearly thirty years ago, a young bearded man in a black suit ran across a road and was immediately hit by a car. Despite flying into and breaking the car’s windscreen, the hoodlum is soon on his feet again and pointing a gun at the unfortunate driver. As the scene is filmed from the driver’s perspective, it almost feels like we, the ones in the audience, are the ones being carjacked.

The carjacker was one ‘Mr Pink’ played by Steve Buscemi. The film was Reservoir Dogs and with its release, the career of film director, Quentin Tarantino had begun.

The years ahead would see the film’s director, Tarantino become so cool that for a while, it seemed possible that the name ‘Quentin’ might actually become cool in itself. In the end, despite the continued popularity of artist Quentin Blake, this never quite happened. But, as with his earlier fine, nicely presented coffee table books on the Coens and Tim Burton, distinguished film critic, Ian Nathan’s book on the video shop employee turned director, reminds us why Tarantino largely deserved all the subsequent fuss that was made about him.

The 1990s was a great time for Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs, a film about a robbery we never see and notorious for an ear removal scene we also never see, featured career-best performances from all its excellent all-male cast. Perhaps only Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi have done better work elsewhere and even they are better in this than anyone else.

Why is it called Reservoir Dogs? The book suggests the issue – as with the answer to the question, “who shot Nice Guy Eddie?”- is a mystery known only to Tarantino himsel). My own theory: the main characters’ behaviour resembles a pack of wild, stray dogs living near a reservoir, fighting each other, betraying each other to survive. But I’ve no idea whether this has any basis in fact. Do stray dogs even live near reservoirs and behave like this? I’ve no idea.

The Nice Guy Eddie ‘mystery’ is more easily explicable, however. The ‘shooting’ of the character, played by the late Chris Penn, was actually the result of a technical error. The ‘squibs’ which stimulated his gunshot wounds went off, exploding prematurely. Tarantino, cannily recognising the potential for controversy, deliberately left the mistake in the finished film. So basically nobody shot him.

Next up, was Pulp Fiction, the film where Tarantino fulfilled his promise. Then came Jackie Brown, the Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, the westerns and this year’s triumphant but flawed Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. I am fully aware I have not covered Tarantino’s body of work fully here. Rest assured: Ian Nathan does. The lone exception is Once Upon A Time… which is touched upon, but was obviously released too late for the book.

But in every other respect, as a crash course in Tarantino, this is second only to watching the films themselves.