Seven Years To Forget

2020 was rubbish, for obvious reasons. But what other years in recent history have also been generally terrible?

1914

For many people, 1914 became enshrined forever as the year the world took a permanent downward turn with the outbreak of the First World War shattering a golden age which would never return, initiating an era of global instability which would persist through a Great Depression, another world war and a new terrifying forty-year nuclear arms race confrontation after that.

Silver linings?: In truth, the world was very far from perfect in 1914 anyway and the outbreak of war undoubtedly accelerated the progress of necessary and welcome social change which would have probably occurred sooner or later anyway. Would this have been any comfort to the average young British Tommy as he stood anxiously, shivering in his trench in 1914, awaiting his turn to climb over the top into No Man’s Land though? Probably not.

1929

With America booming its merry way through the Jazz Age and even the defeated Germany finally developing into a relatively prosperous and politically moderate democracy off the back of American loans, people at last seemed to have put the horrors of the Great War behind them. Then boom: the collapse of the US stock market in October 1929, threw everything into chaos again. While the US eventually found a saviour in the form of Franklin D. Roosevelt elected in 1932, the resulting Great Depression pushed Britain and France into turmoil while Germany lurched towards Hitler and imperial Japan and Mussolini’s Italy soon became increasingly aggressive on the international stage. With the impotent League of Nations powerless to stop things. within a few years the armies of the world were soon beating the drums of war once again.

Silver linings?: From a left-wing perspective, it might seem encouraging that the Depression did push American voters away from mediocre pro-laissez faire Republican isolationist presidents into the inspiring, highly interventionist New Deal which arguably pushed the US closer to socialism than ever before and led to five consecutive Democratic presidential victories in a row. But it did lead to the rise of Hitler. Even Oswald Mosely and his Blackshirts started marching around the UK. So, generally, it wasn’t worth it.

1940

Eighty years on, talk of the ‘darkest hour,’ Vera Lynn, the Battle of Britain and the plucky, cheerful defiance of the ‘spirit of the Blitz’ have conspired to give 1940 a somewhat romantic air. The reality was surely deeply traumatic with the forces of the Third Reich overrunning western Europe,  the devastating defeat at Dunkirk and the nightly terror experienced by large swathes of the population as they suffered sustained aerial bombardment as well as prolonged separation from loved ones with men fighting overseas and countless children evacuated to the relative safety of the countryside.

Silver linings?: It’s probably true that the sense of national unity and purpose forged in the heat of war had a lasting positive effect on the post-war national political landscape. Despite this, it is only really the fact that against all odds, Hitler didn’t actually invade that redeems 1940 (as well as the arguably more horrific years of 1944 and 1945) at all. Were we looking back to 1940 from the perspective of a world after a Nazi victory, 1940 would undoubtedly now be seen as the most catastrophic year in human history.

1973

The heady highs of the 1960s had well and truly worn off by 1973.  In the US, the agonies of Watergate and the aftermath of Vietnam diminished the American image forever while in Britain, the confrontation between the Heath Government and the unions brought Britain to a shuddering strike-bound halt by the end of the year as the nation adopted the Three Day Week. Worse still, the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East not only brought the world closer to the brink of nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, but the dramatic increase in global oil prices which resulted effectively ensured the western world would spend the rest of the 1970s and much of the 1980s in the throes of economic recession.

2001

As the 21st century dawned, the world could celebrate not just a new millennium but a state of relative peace in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement and a decade of international relations free of the East-West rivalry of the Cold War. Not everything was perfect in the world: it never is all of these summaries have necessarily been very selective. But even this couldn’t last as the terror attacks of Tuesday September 11th 2001 unleashed a new age of insecurity in western affairs which persists to this day.

2016

People die every day and celebrities are, of course, no different. But there was something was new about the numbers and calibre of the famous people dying, often prematurely, in 2016. David Bowie. Victoria Wood. Alan Rickman. Terry Wogan. Caroline Aherne. George Michael. Prince. Carrie Fisher. So many of these names struck a nerve (often occurring before what seemed to be their time) that it was hard for anyone not to be moved.

And then there was the Brexit vote. And Donald Trump’s victory. As a bad news year, 2016 was pretty relentless. Whatever your politics, both these elections seemed to trigger a new age of ugliness and intolerance to debate which has poisoned political discourse ever since. Unbelievable as it would have seemed at the time, the David Cameron years of austerity and coalition now seem like a bygone era of simplicity and innocence in comparison.

Silver linings?: From a conservative viewpoint, I suppose, 2016 could be seen as a year of triumph with the petty complacency of the ‘left-wing elites’ confounded by the triumph of down-to-earth working class hero types like millionaire’s son Donald Trump, ex-public schoolboy and former city stockbroker, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. From the perspective of January 2021, this interpretation is starting to look like something of a stretch.

Also rans:

1919: Another global pandemic and a botched peace settlement at Versailles which made another war inevitable within twenty years.

1945: Victory. But also a terrible escalation in violence as the war neared its end and the launch of the atomic age.

1962: The Cuban Missile Crisis brings humanity closer to destruction than ever before. Had things turned out differently, this would easily be the worst year on this list. Although I wouldn’t have written it in the first place as I would never have been born as the human race would have died out in the same month the first James Bond film was released.

2008: Another global crash.

The Crown. Series 4, Episode 2: The Balmoral Test

Balmoral: 1981. And the holidaying Royal Family are buzzing with excitement at the news a computer-animated stag has been sighted, limping across the nearby landscape. Who amongst them will be the first to fell the wounded beast? This episode is entitled, ‘The Balmoral Test.’ It could just have easily been called, ‘Stag Party.’

The Windsors also have other prey in mind too, as the Prime Minister and her husband are set to join them for a few days of socially excruciating fun and games. Will Margaret and Denis Thatcher (Gillian Anderson and Stephen Boxer) prove up to the challenge? Will they, in short, pass ‘the Balmoral test?’

Spoiler alert: no. They don’t.

As usual, writer Peter Morgan presents a balanced view of things. On the one hand, Margaret Thatcher was clearly a workaholic, with little sense of humour and no sense of fun. In real life, she described Balmoral as “purgatory.” She commits a number of social gaffes, notably turning up for a rural excursion to hunt the stag in a brilliant blue suit more appropriate for addressing the Conservative Party Conference. The woman who, in reality, spent nearly every New Year’s Eve of her eleven-year premiership in the company of Jimmy Saville, leaves after only a few days with the Windsors. She has better things to do: the country is in the grip of recession and her Cabinet, some of whom were in ‘Allo ‘Allo (Guy Siner – Gruber in the sitcom, sir Francis Pym in this) are in open revolt.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see why any outsider might struggle to get involved in the long established traditions of a close-knit family, particularly one as jaded and weird as the Windsors are. The Royal Family treat the Thatchers with frosty disdain, never explaining anything and assuming everyone else already knows their silly little rules. It is easy to see why Thatcher might not enjoy playing ‘Iggle Piggle’ or enjoy the delivery of Princess Anne’s (Erin Doherty) spirited animal impressions at close quarters. It also doesn’t help that two of the Royals, Princess Margaret and Prince Philip (Helena Bonham Carter and Tobias Menzies) are amongst the rudest people to have ever lived.

Later, Mrs. Thatcher diminishes herself still further in the eyes of the Queen (Colman) explaining her purge of the Wets (Tories, uneasy at the severe consequences of her economic policies) occurred almost entirely due to a lack of resolution on their part resulting from their privileged social background. This would have been an odd tactic to adopt when talking to the Queen, of all people, and doesn’t really do justice to the stubborn self-belief which enabled the Iron Lady to cling doggedly to such policies, even as society was devastated by mass unemployment.

Back at Balmoral, however, another new arrival – Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) brings a new subject for the family’s scrutiny, young Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin). There is a slight sense of manipulation in the way Diana wins over the Royals – for example, she tells Philip (falsely) she is essentially a country girl at heart. But this isn’t overstated. Diana soon helps the Duke kill the stag, effectively winning over all the Royals (except Margaret) in one fell swoop. She has passed the Balmoral Test with flying colours!

Next time we see her, she is Diana as most of the wider world in 1981 first saw her. A beautiful but seemingly ordinary young woman at the centre of stories about her relationship with the Prince of Wales, smiling self-consciously as she walks down the street surrounded by a growing number of snapping photographers, seemingly slightly irritated by all the attention, but also rather enjoying it at the same time.

And so, it begins…

The Crown. Season 3. Episode 10: Cri de Coeur

And so the third series of The Crown comes to an end, bringing us up to 1977, the year of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee.

At one point in this episode, the dastardly Lord Snowdon (Ben Daniels) shows the Queen (Olivia Colman) some pictures of herself and Prince Philip, presumably supposed to have been taken in the early 1960s. “Gosh! Don’t we look young!” the Queen exclaims. The pictures are not, of course, of the Royal couple as we see them in the series now, but as they were in their younger incarnations when played by Claire Foy and Matt Smith in the first two series.

It is a nice nod to the past. For all Foy and Smith’s success, Season 3 has seen Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies make the roles their own. Colman (in reality, now 46 years old) has taken the Queen from her late thirties in 1964, just into her fifties. Season 4, which is about to be released, will take the story up to 1990. The current plan is for two final series after that starring Imelda Staunton (an actress, currently in her mid-sixties) which will take us through most of the remaining years of the Queen’s long reign.

Most of this episode deals with Princess Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter) and the wreckage of her disastrous marriage to philandering photographer, Lord Snowdon. An increasingly boozy and unhappy figure as she enters middle age, thanks to Snowdon’s womanising and general nastiness, Margaret finds solace in the arms of younger landscape gardener, Roddy Llewellyn (Harry Treadaway). After some brief and much deserved happiness, she ultimately narrowly survives a suicide attempt, provoking a genuine show of compassion from her sister. Sadly, Margaret’s ordeal does not inspire the same response from her mother (Marion Bailey) who dismisses this as a Cri de Coeur, (essentially ‘a cry for help’) rather than a serious attempt on her life. ‘Cri de Coeur’ is the title, an episode in which the Queen Mother comes across very badly.

Strangely, although Princess Anne, as played brilliantly by Erin Doherty has emerged as a major character in this series. her first marriage to Captain Mark Phillips in 1973 and her attempted kidnapping in 1974, both major events at the time, are not mentioned here at all.

We do, however, witness the departure of Prime Minister, Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins) in 1976, resigning suddenly after being returned to power in the two General Elections of 1974. Wilson here cites his Alzheimer’s diagnosis as his official reason for resigning. I’m not sure this was ever clearly stated, even in private, at the time.

As with creator Peter Morgan’s earlier play, The Audience, this series has seen the Queen and Wilson’s relationship blossom from an initially awkward one into probably the best relationship between a Prime Minister and the monarch of her entire reign. The Queen is visibly sorry to see Wilson go. Thanks to Jason Watkins’ brilliant performance, so are we.

Next up: a girl called Diana and a woman called Margaret show up as we begin The Crown Series 4…

2000AD timeline 11: 1987

1987 (Prog 503 – 554)

January (Prog 505): The vampish Durham Red makes her debut appearance in the new Strontium Dog (Grant/Ezquerra). Slaine The King and Bad Company are also appearing at this point. The Dead (Milligan/Belardinelli) begins in Prog 510.

April (Prog 516): The cover price rises to 28p.

May (Prog 520): Tenth anniversary prog! From now on 2000AD is no longer printed on newsprint but on slightly larger, highly quality paper stock. Rogue Trooper returns (Simon Geller/Steve Dillon), as does Anderson PSI (Wagner and Grant/Barry Kitson), Torquemada the God (Mills/O’Neill). Judge Dredd appears in a special Ten Years On (Wagner and Grant/Garry Leach).

Richard Burton replaces Steve MacManus as editor. MacManus has edited the comic since 1978. 2000AD develops an increasingly ‘grown-up’ sensibility in the years ahead. It is an exciting time for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic!

June (Prog 525): D.R and Quinch’s Agony Page begins. Creator Alan Moore is no longer involved (Jamie Delano and Alan Davis/Alan Davis and Mark Farmer).

August (Prog 533): Bradley makes his first appearance in a Tharg’s Futureshock (Alan McKenzie/Simon Harrison).

(Prog 534): P.J. Maybe makes his first appearance in Judge Dredd: Bug (Wagner and Grant/Liam Sharp). Nemesis appears in an unusual one-off photo story (Mills/photos: Tony Luke).

(Prog 535): Zenith arrives (Grant Morrison/Steve Yeowell). The character (a pop star and superhero) himself doesn’t appear until Prog 536.

(Prog 537): Universal Soldier arrives (McKenzie/Will Simpson).

September (Prog 541): Mean Team ends (Alan Hebden/Belardinelli). Most of the main characters are killed off.

October (Prog 545): Oz begins (Wagner and Grant/Cliff Robertson). It is the first Dredd mega-epic in five years.

November (Prog 547): Bad Company II begins (Milligan/ Brett Ewins and Jim McCarthy).

December (Prog 554): Last appearance for the old 2000AD logo.

Elsewhere:

February: Be afraid. Be very afraid. David Cronenberg’s The Fly lands in the UK.

April: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home sees the crew of the Enterprise visiting 20th century Earth. Star Trek: The Next Generation arrives on US TV this year but does not appear on BBC 2 until 1990.

July: Superman IV: The Quest for Peace proves a massive flop.

September: Sylvester McCoy debuts as the Seventh Doctor Who. Fantasy adventure, Knightmare debuts on Children’s ITV.

November: Robocop receives its UK cinema premiere. Many see a resemblance to Judge Dredd. Predator is also released this month. Terry Pratchett’s Mort is published. Consider Phlebas, the first of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels also appears this year.

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, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (amongst other things). He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and wrote A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He was also wrote the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars annuals as well as the 2015 Transformers annual.

2000AD timeline 7: 1983

1983 (Progs 297- 349):

January: Prog 300!

March (Prog 307): The final Harry Twenty on the High Rock.

(Prog 308): Skizz lands in the comic (Alan Moore/Jim Baikie).

(Prog 309): Judge Dredd confronts The Starborn Thing (Wagner and Grant/Ezquerra).

April (Prog 311): Sixth birthday issue. The cover price rises to 20p. The Slaying of Slade begins in Robo-Hunter (Wagner and Grant/Gibson).

May (Prog 317): D.R. and Quinch Have Fun On Earth in a Time Twisters story. It is their first ever appearance (Alan Moore/Davis).

August (Prog 330): Slaine appears for the first time (Mills/Angie Kincaid and later Massimo Belardinelli). Skizz ends. Conclusion of The Slaying of Slade.

September (Prog 334): For the first time in 2000AD history, all four stories reach the conclusion of their particular stories simultaneously (Dredd, Slaine, Rogue Trooper, Robo-Hunter). This happens again at the end of the year.

(Prog 335): Nemesis the Warlock Book Three (Mills/O’Neill). Strontium Dog also returns (Grant/Ezquerra) in The Moses Incident. Dredd begins The Graveyard Shift (Wagner and Grant/Ron Smith).

Elsewhere:

February: Knight Rider debuts on UK TV.

June: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is the biggest film of the year. It is the last official Star Wars film for 16 years. Episode VII will not come out for another 32 years.

The James Bond film, Octopussy opens.

July: Superman III flies onto British screens. It does significantly worse than Superman II did, but does much better than Superman IV will do.

August: Matthew Broderick stars in War Games.

October: Gerry Anderson & Christopher Burr’s Terrahawks arrives.

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, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (amongst other things). He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and wrote A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He was also wrote the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars annuals as well as the 2015 Transformers annual.

2000AD timeline 5: 1981

1981 (Progs: 193-244):

February (Prog 200): The 200th issue sees the launch of the epic Johnny Alpha origins story, Portrait of a Mutant in Strontium Dog (Grant/Ezquerra).

April (Prog 206): Dredd story Un-American Graffiti (Wagner/Ron Smith, Brett Ewins). First appearance of Marlon Shakespeare aka. Chopper.

June (Prog 216): Writer Peter Milligan debuts in the comic.

(Prog 217): Alan Moore and John Higgins’ famous Tharg’s Futureshock: The Last Rumble of the Platinum Horde! A rare instance of a Futureshock getting a cover (Cover art: Mike McMahon).

July (Prog 222): A major arrival: Nemesis the Warlock Book One begins (Mills/O’Neill). Two mini-stories appeared in 1980.

August (Prog 224): The Dark Judges arrive in Judge Death Lives! (Wagner and Grant/Bolland).

2000AD rises to 16p. It is now twice as much as it was when it started in 1977. This is not an unusual rate of increase for the time, however. Besides:, by 1981, the comic is undoubtedly enjoying a golden age.

A new Judge Dredd comic strip begins in the Daily Star newspaper this month, initially produced by John Wagner, Alan Grant and Ron Smith. It continues until 1998.

September (Prog 228): Rogue Trooper goes into battle for the first time (Finley-Day/Dave Gibbons). It becomes Gerry Finley-Day’s biggest hit and one of 2000AD’s most popular stories.

October (Prog 232): Ace Trucking Co. begins trading! It is one of the zaniest stories ever to appear in the comic. (Wagner and Grant/Belardinelli).

Other stories this year include: The Mean Arena, Meltdown Man (which ends in August after an unusually long fifty-issue run) and Return to Armageddon.

(Prog 236): Blockmania erupts in Judge Dredd! (Wagner and Grant/Boland, McMahon). This story leads directly into the Apocalypse War mega-epic which launches at the start of 1982.

Elsewhere:

January: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy TV series begins.

March: Tom Baker’s last outing as Doctor Who.

July: Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi fantasy classic, Time Bandits is released in UK cinemas. So is Clash of the Titans.

September: John Carpenter’s Escape From New York.

December: Blake’s Seven ends.

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, Best of British and Comic Scene – in which he wrote about Judge Death, The Ballad of Halo Jones, Dan Dare, The Eagle and Alan Moore’s Watchmen (amongst other things). He co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter (with Tim Isaac) and wrote A-Z of Exeter – People, Places, History. He was also wrote the 2014 annuals for The Smurfs, Furbys and Star Wars Clone Wars annuals as well as the 2015 Transformers annual.

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.

Top Ten Tigers From History


1. Tiger King: Netflix series. I’ve not seen this yet! But I must do soon as I hear about it everywhere I go (i,e. the kitchen, lounge and bathroom).

2. Tony the Tiger: Cartoon character used to advertise Frosties breakfast cereal (basically Corn Flakes with more sugar on). As Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) on Peep Show says: “Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.”


3. Tiger Tiger: Popular nightclub. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “Tyger tyger, burning bright. Get pissed, pull and have a fight…”

4. Tygra from Thundercats. The “boring one” of the Fab Four, a bit like George Harrison or Mike from The Young Ones.


5. Rod’s Tiger: Popular comic story about a boy and his pet tiger which ran in Buster comic between 1981 and 1983. A pun on the name of the actor, Rod Steiger. Not really! I made this one up.

6. Tigger: From Winnie the Pooh. Immortalised in the William Blake poem: “The wonderful thing about Tiggers…” (I think?)

7. Battle Cat: From He-Man. Transformed from a very anxious green tiger called Cringer into a gruffer (he could speak) more aggressive feline when his master became He-Man. Technically, as he was an alien he might not have actually been a tiger in the same way that the Ewoks from Star Wars are not really bears.

8. Tiger Woods. A golfer. Clemenceau, the French leader at the time of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 nicknamed, “The Tiger.” Neither in fact shared many attributes with tigers. Tigers cannot play golf and no tiger has ever attempted to impose reparations on 1920s Germany.

9. Tiger used to sell oil in the 1980s. “Put a tiger in your tank.” I seem to remember the adverts being much duller than this slogan would suggest with some slow music, some oil running along the ground and a real tiger appearing (the only real tiger on this list). My research suggests some of the adverts were more fun, however.

10. The Tiger Who Came To Tea. Popular children’s book by the late Judith Kerr.

11 (still ten overall as 5 was a cheat!) Tiger Tim: Very old comic character. The UK tennis player Tim Henman is sometimes nicknamed ‘Tiger Tim’ too. I remember nothing about Tiger Tim other than that he wore a blazer, as indeed does Tim Henman sometimes. Was the choice of a ‘blazer’ intended as some sort of clever pun on Blake’s ‘burning bright’ poem? Answer: probably not.

Empty World: Revisited

If you studied English at secondary school during the 1990s, there is every possibility you will remember reading the book, Empty World, by John Christopher.

The book tells of a disease which originates in Asia before rapidly spreading across the world and devastating the global population. Although published in 1977, with the world currently seeking to combat the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic, the book obviously has plenty of resonance to anyone reading it in 2020.

The novella focuses on a teenaged boy, Neil Miller. Neil is living with his elderly parents after having been orphaned in a road accident when he first begins to hear news reports of a new mysterious disease coming out of India. Initially, just a minor story chuntering away in the background, concern rises as the ‘Calcutta Plague’ spreads further and further across the world. Soon there are rumours it has arrived in Britain. Neil’s grandfather is old enough to remember the Second World War. He suggests spreading rumours should be made into a punishable offence again, as it was then.

Soon the Calcutta Plague’s presence in Britain is beyond doubt. One of Neil’s elderly teachers succumbs to it as do both his grandparents. The disease takes the form of a fever, before generating symptoms which appear to emulate a very rapid version of the ageing process. This is not very similar to COVID-19 at all, although the fictional plague does attack older people first. Eventually, it becomes clear that it is infecting pretty much everyone including some children Neil knows of his age (fifteen) and younger. This resembles the progress of COVID-19 in some respects. The elderly are undoubtedly being hit harder by the virus although contrary to early rumour, children can get it badly and die from it too.

The key difference, however, is that while the vast, overwhelming majority of people who get COVID-19 survive, with the exception of a few random people like Neil who get the initial fever but subsequently seem to be immune, the fictional Calcutta Plague kills anyone who gets it. As the title suggests, the book is essentially apocalyptic. Neil finds himself roaming or driving down completely empty streets, looting empty shops and  battling an inevitable brief explosion in the rat population, the disease having killed nearly every human on the Earth.

As terrible as COVID-19 is, we should be grateful it is not quite as bad as that.

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.

The heroes who saved Exeter

The news was alarming, to say the least.

At just past 1am on the morning of 4th May 1942, radio operators based in Exeter, reported that forty German bombers – Junkers – had taken off from Nazi-occupied Paris and were now heading for Exeter. Although the news was not totally out of the blue –  Exeter had already been suffering as a result of the Baedeker Raids and had already experienced serious attacks late in April –  this promised to be the worst attack yet.

Thankfully, a small but valiant band of heroes were on hand to defend Exeter that night. Demonstrating incredible bravery and facing terrible odds, the 307 Polish Night Fighter Squadron went into battle despite having only four serviceable Beaufighters available. As we know, Exeter did not escape bombing that night. However, without the actions of the Polish fighters, the consequences would have undoubtedly been worse. By 2.30am, the squadron were accredited with shooting down four Junkers including one which had crashed near Topsham cricket ground.

In short, the role of the Polish Night Fighters in defending wartime Exeter, is too often overlooked.

Always faithful

The story of the Polish Night Squadron essentially begins with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939: the event which triggered British involvement in the Second World War. With Poland defeated, many Polish pilots made the hazardous journey to Britain. Eventually realising their worth, the RAF soon had the Polish pilots flying with them, initially stationed in Blackpool. In Lincolnshire, a  new division was formed under Squadron Commander Stanislaw Pietraszkiewicz. It was named the ‘307 (City of Lwow) Night Fighter Squadron’. It arrived  in Exeter in April 1941. The location was fitting. The city of Lwow, now known as Lviv is now part of the Ukraine. By coincidence, the city has the same motto as Exeter: “Semper Fidelis”: always faithful.

The division had another name too: they were known as the ‘Night Owls’ or the ‘Lwow Eagle Owls’. An owl, a plane and a crescent moon were included in their emblem.

The Night Owls remembered

The Night Owls remained  in Devon until they were moved to Swansea in April 1943. Their role in Exeter had extended way beyond the actions of May 1942. Many of the pilots suffered death, not just in combat, but often as a result of technical faults on their planes. They also came to play a vital role in city life. Some of the pilots married and had children during their time in Exeter.

2019 was the 80th anniversary of 307 Squadron and in November (14-15 November) 307 Squadron held a major exhibition at Exeter Guildhall to mark the anniversary. The Polish flag was raised on 15th November over the Guildhall as has happened every year since 2012.

Extra: What were the Baedeker Raids?

The Baedeker Blitz was a series of air raids launched during April and May  1942, in response to the RAF attack on the undefended city of Lübeck. The German high command reportedly used the 1930s edition of the Victorian Baedeker series of guidebooks to help them identify English towns which were valued primarily for cultural value, rather than for their strategic or military importance. Exeter – in fact, a city of cultural value but also not strategically insignificant either – was targeted first. The overall campaign was abandoned fairly quickly but nevertheless cost some 1,600 lives in total and destroyed many buildings.

Chris Hallam wrote the 2019 book, A-Z Exeter – Places, People, History and co-wrote, Secret Exeter (2018). Both books are available now from Amberley.

The Best UK sitcoms of the 21st century so far…Peep Show (2003-15)

Mark Corrigan (David Mitchell) is a straight-laced sort of chap. “Socks before or after trousers, but never socks before pants, that’s the rule,” we hear him thinking in the first episode. “Makes a man look scary, like a chicken.” Later, he eats some toast: “Brown for first course, white for pudding. Brown is savoury, white’s the treat. Of course, I’m the one who’s laughing because I actually love brown toast!”

For all this sweetness, Mark can be weird and quite history-obsessed, sometimes constructing strange analogies to explain his relationships with women.”Sophie is the one. Toni is Russia: Vast, mysterious, unconquerable.,” he reasons. “Sophie is Poland: Manageable… won’t put up too much of a fight.” He is a loans manager, boring, neurotic, anal, and as the above indicates, obsessed with his work colleague, Sophie (Olivia Colman).

His flatmate, old Uni friend, Jeremy (Robert Webb) is a very different character: jobless, vain, promiscuous, irresponsible, convinced against all the evidence of his own musical genius, (he envisages a band called, “Danny Dyer’s Chocolate Homunculus). He falls ‘in love’ with any pretty girl he meets and is too much under the influence of his dubious friend, Super Hans (Matt King). “If I don’t think about it, there’s always a chance it didn’t happen,” is a typical thought.

“If it feels good, do it!” he suggests to an outraged Mark, at one point.

“If it feels good, do it?” Mark repeats incredulously. “And what is that? ‘Gaddafi’s Law?'”

Peep Show is still the longest running sitcom in Channel 4 history. Two things particularly (other than Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain’s brilliant writing) elevate it above the usual odd couple style flat share set-up. Firstly, the unique way it is filmed, enabling us to not only see the world through Mark and Jez’s eyes but hear their (often not entirely flattering) thoughts.

The other is that as a comedy vehicle, it introduced most of the world to the world of David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

Or as Jez would put it: “This is good. This is exactly like watching a porno. Except I can’t see anything, I haven’t got a hard on and I want to cry.”

Netflix, All 4

Peep Show quotes:

Mark: Jeremy, there are many things I would do to help you. But digging a hole in the wintry earth with my bare hands so that you can bury the corpse of a dog you killed is not one of them.

Jez: Justice is done. Not actual justice, but what I wanted to happen, which is basically the same thing.

Jez: Crunchy Nut cornflakes are just Frosties for wankers.

Mark: Frosties are just cornflakes for people who can’t face reality.

Jez: No more drugs! I don’t need drugs. I mean, what great music was ever made on drugs? Bowie, obviously…The Floyd…The Prodge. Aphex, the list is endless really.

Super Hans: People? People like Coldplay and voted for the Nazis! You can’t trust people, Jez.

Mark: So what if I don’t really love her. Charles didn’t really love Diana and they were alright. Sort of.

Jez: Brilliant, Mark! My mate and your woman have just gone off to fuck each other. What are we gonna do now? Go and make a tent in the living room and eat Dairylea? Is that what you want? ‘Cos that’s what’s gonna happen!

Mark: There’s the familiar gut punch of pain and confusion. Hello, old friend…

Jez (on vaginas): She’s got one. She’s got one. She’s definitely got one… she’s pretending she hasn’t got one. But really she has..

Mark: Well, listen, I’m sorry if I didn’t do it right and I’m sorry if you assume that I eat red meat and don’t necessarily think money or Tony Blair are a bad thing, but if there isn’t room here for people who stand against everything you believe in, then what sort of a hippy free-for-all is this?

Jez: Come Mr. Taliban, tally my bananas.

Mark: The perfect combination of beauty and low self esteem.

Big Suze: My friend Otto had a very bad trip one time. He put his head on a railway track thinking it was a big steel sweatband.

Jez: Why can’t I just have everything I want? All the time? Isn’t that democracy?

Mark: I guess doing things you hate is just the price you pay to avoid loneliness.

Jez: Aren’t we supposed to be living in a multicultural democracy? And isn’t that the point? You know, the Jews, the Muslims and the racists all living together happily side by side, doing and saying whatever the hell they like?

Mark: Do a Columbo! Do a Columbo!

Super Hans: The twins! I’m always going on about me twins, am I?’ Course I have! The twins, the fucking twins. I’m always on about them! I bloody love ’em too. Hey – I’ve got them on my phone. Oh, hold on, have I…?

Mark: This was definitely a good idea. There’s no chance this wasn’t a good idea.

The Best British sitcoms of the 21st century so far: The IT Crowd (2006-13)

Jen, Roy and Maurice make up ‘the IT Crowd,’ the IT support team located in the basement of a large London corporation. Jen (Katherine Parkinson), is the boss. Hopelessly out of her depth having bluffed her way into a job she knows nothing about, she is even unsure how to pronounce the word, ‘computers’ correctly. Roy (Chris O’Dowd), meanwhile, is nice but lazy. He tends to answer every IT enquiry with the question, “Have you tried switching it off and on again?” Finally, there’s Maurice Moss (Richard Ayoade), an intelligent geek.

As with Graham Linehan’s other sitcoms, Father Ted and Black Books, The IT Crowd’s main characters arguably adhere to a comedy formula: an inept boss who would rather be somewhere else (Ted Crilly, Bernard Black, Jen), an amiable subordinate (Dougal, Fran, Roy) and a weirdo (Father Jack, Manny, Moss). But if it is a formula, it’s pretty loose: none of these characters are really anything like each other. And it works.

The casting of Chris Morris, as company head, Denholm Reynholm generated much comment when the show started.  Why was Morris, the man behind Brass Eye attaching himself to such a mainstream vehicle? Such statements proved misplaced. Morris, although fine, was never the best thing in it. All the main cast proved their worth on their show and have flourished elsewhere since. Morris, at any rate, soon left to be replaced by Matt Berry as his son and heir, Douglas. As the lecherous, unreconstructed “sexy Hitler,” Douglas, Berry (in fact, only twelve years’ younger than Morris) delivers an almost career-defining performance.

Although patchy at first, The IT Crowd was a rare sitcom which steadily improved as it went on. Standout episodes feature Roy’s emotional game of Dungeons and Dragons, Moss’s appearance on Countdown, Roy and Moss tricking Jen into believing a box contains the entire internet and a work’s outing to see ‘Gay! A Gay Musical.’

And for the record, the title, The IT Crowd is apparently pronounced to rhyme with ‘high tea crowd’ not ‘bit crowd’. Although, frankly, it probably doesn’t really matter.

All 4, Netflix

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

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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.

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.

Restaurant review: Comptoir Libanais, Exeter

Guildhall Shopping Centre, Queen St, Exeter EX4 3HP

Three years after it opened, the Exeter branch of Lebanese restaurant chain Comptoir Libanis has established itself as a solid player in the city’s ever expanding food empire.

Arriving for lunch in the Guildhall Centre on a grey early October afternoon, we might have expected the restaurant to be deserted. Not a bit of it. There was a busy, pleasant, family friendly atmosphere and some well-behaved pre-school children sat near us, many wearing Fezs on their heads, which I presume had been given out specially (just like that?).

The food: For starters, we were recommended the Mezze Platter., for me and my wife to share. This consisted of hommos, baba ghanuj, tabbouleh, falafel, natural labné, cheese samboussek, flatbread and pickles. Every aspect of this was pleasant and as I am a nut allergy sufferer, I was especially appreciative of the staff’s sensitivity when I enquired about this.

I am generally quite a messy eater (the party of children I mentioned before, probably left less debris behind than I typically do. I thus went for a relatively safe option: a burger, specifically a Lebanese Lamb and Halloumi burger consisting of char-grilled lamb kofta burger with grilled halloumi, tahina, harrisa mayonnaise, tomato, pickled cucumber, served with Lebanese spiced potatoes.

We live in age where high quality burgers have become almost the norm. This one certainly really hit the spot. I soon found myself calculating how much bread I needed to sacrifice to ensure I could manage all of the main event.

Not for the first time, my wife chose well too, opting for Chicken Taouk: marinated grilled chicken breast with garlic sauce, pickled cucumber and tomato. I was soon in the weird position of envying her choice while simultaneously being pleased with my own selection.

Our only error? We had by now eaten far too much to even contemplate a dessert. The starter alone would have satisfied many people.

Still, never mind: we are sure to come to Comptoir Libanais again.

The Man in the High Castle

Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):

It seems like a familiar sight. A lone sultry and very famous singer delivers a seductive performance of “happy birthday” to the birthday boy, actually her secret lover, who also happens to be her leader. But as she reaches the third line, something jars. The words change and things take a chilling turn. “Happy birthday…Mein Fuhrer,” are the star’s next words. For while this is Marilyn Monroe, she is not singing to President Kennedy, the charismatic young American president but to … someone else entirely.

So, begins the trailer for the second season of Amazon Prime’s, The Man In The High Castle. And as if we didn’t know already, this is a world in which history has taken a very different turn from our own. And not for the better.

THE REICH STUFF

The premise of The Man In The High Castle stems from the endlessly fascinating question; what would the world be like, had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan triumphed at the end of the Second World War instead of the Allies, (that is the United States, Soviet Union, British Empire and others)?

It was a question which once haunted the feverish, troubled but hugely imaginative mind of author Philip K Dick. The man whose writing ultimately inspired many of the greatest science fiction films of all time including Blade Runner, Total Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, Dick been just too young to fight for the US in World War II himself but nevertheless realised what a close thing the outcome of the war had been. Over fifty years’ ago, inspired by another novel which convincingly  imagined a victory for the slavery supporting Confederacy in the 1860s American Civil War, he set to work producing a book depicting a similar alternative ending to World War II.

Prone to hallucinations and sudden bouts of paranoia, Dick had a relatively short turbulent life, dying in 1982, aged just 63 without seeing most of his work reach the screen. But he enjoyed probably more success The Man in High Castle than with any other book during his lifetime.

WELCOME TO AMERICA: 1962

The first season of The Man In The High Castle in 2015 brought the book’s chilling vision vividly to the screen. The United States of America we know from this period (portrayed in the early series of Mad Men, amongst other things) was confident, victorious and powerful poised on the verge of huge successes such as in the space race, but also riven by racial division and on the brink of disaster both in the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the growing war in Vietnam. But the America portrayed here is very different: it is no longer in fact, even the “United States” at all. We soon learn that the west coast of the former USA is now under the control of the victorious Japanese while the eastern bit is under Nazi German rule. The Rocky Mountains meanwhile are a neutral buffer zone between the two sides, this being where the mysterious “man in the high castle” is said to reside.

 Tantalising hints as to what has befallen the Allies are scattered liberally throughout both the series and the book. One character suggests the great war leader President Franklin D. Roosevelt was assassinated long before the war started in this reality, perhaps explaining why the US did not win. Another suggests that the war dragged on until 1947 instead of 1945 here, only ending when Nazi Germany dropped an atomic bomb on Washington DC.

TORN ASUNDER

A divided land then and few of the characters we meet are not facing a conflict of the loyalty of some sort or another. With the first season still on Amazon Prime some might want to steer clear now. But for everyone else, here’s a quick reminder…

San Francisco resident Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) for example, an expert in aikido appears happy living under Japanese rule at the start of Season 1. That’s until her half-sister Trudy who turns out to have been a member of the anti-government Resistance, is unexpectedly killed. Juliana finds herself drawn herself into the work of the Resistance as she attempts to complete Trudy’s last job: delivering a tape entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy to the mythical man in the High Castle. Intriguingly, the tape depicts an alternative version of history in which the US and the Allies defeated Germany and Japan! Essentially, the world in the tape is very like our own.

Juliana is aided and abetted by her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) a man enjoying some creative success but who has a dark secret which pushes him closer and closer to full blown rebellion: he is Jewish. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) meanwhile faces conflict of a different sort. Although supposedly a member of the Resistance he is in fact a secret agent in the employ of SS Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). Although very clearly a baddie, Smith is far from the typical stereotypical black and white Nazi villain. As his name suggests, he is an American-born participant in the new regime. A family man living a comfortable suburban life, it is suggested he has been drawn to Nazism by the apparent failure of the old American system in the Great Depression of the Thirties. Trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is yet another character who finds himself torn between conflicting loyalties. The new series also sees Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) begins to take more interest in the Man in the High Castle.

With Juliana, increasingly unsure what to do about the treacherous Joe, Joe doubting his own continued commitment to the Third Reich, Smith increasingly doubtful about the Nazi philosophy after the illness of one of his children, more revelations from The Grasshopoper Lies Heavy tapes and mounting tensions between Germany and Japan, the ten hour long episodes of Season Two of The Man In The High Castle promise to be just as compelling and as full of intrigue as the first.

At the root of the series’ success however is its authentic portrayal of a chilling but plausible alternative version of American history that though perhaps a touch more plausible in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory, has mercifully never existed.

WHO’S IN IT?

ALEXA DAVALOS

Playing the starring role of Juliana Crain, French-born Alexa has appeared in a good range of TV (Angel, Mob City) and films (notably The Chronicles of Riddick and Clash of the Titans).

RUPERT EVANS

With a key role in Ewan MacGregor’s recently released directorial debut American Pastoral, British actor Evans who plays Frank Frink has been in plays, TV and film aplenty, notably offbeat superhero flick Hellboy.

RUFUS SEWELL

Instantly recognisable as the older man love interest Lord Melbourne in the recent ITV Victoria, Sewell, also British, has been playing sexy villains for years in A Knight’s Tale, The Legend of Zorro and other films and TV.