Book review: A Very Courageous Decision. The Inside Story of Yes Minister, by Graham McCann

Published by: Aurum Press.

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Two truly great British sitcoms appeared in the Eighties. Blackadder began in 1983, getting into its stride two years’ later. But the first, Yes, Minister, had began almost at the very start of the decade in February 1980, having been postponed for a year after industrial action had prevented its broadcast in early 1979. Yes, Minister would thus appear on screen under Margaret Thatcher but it had been conceived under her predecessor, Jim Callaghan.

It didn’t matter. The greatest political comedy of the Thatcher era was in fact non-partisan. Jim Hacker, though a “Jim” who eventually became Prime Minister was not supposed to be Callaghan. Indeed, he wasn’t originally even supposed to be a Jim. Creators Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn had planned the series around a Gerry Hacker who is elevated to the Ministry of Administrative Affairs. When Paul Eddington, best known for his recent role as the amiable but henpecked Jerry in The Good Life, the name was changed to remove any association being made between what would turn out to be the two most famous roles of his life.

The casting turned out to be a masterstroke but it was the writing that provided Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister with its backbone. Antony Jay (an older man and a Tory who died in 2016) and Jonathan Lynn (a left of centre figure still in his thirties when the show began) wisely decided to make their minister’s party affiliations unclear. There were occasional references to contemporary politics. For example, Sir Humphrey refers to a potential triumph for Hacker: “this could be your Falkland Islands,” although on a different occasion criticises another suggestion as “a Bennite solution.” In another episode, they also meet a London “loony left” councillor called Ben Stanley (“that odious troglodyte with the wispy moustache. The press hate him”).  In reality, the moustached left winger Ken Livingstone led the Greater London Council at the time. The name “Ben” does sound a lot like “Ken”. While the missionary David LIVINGSTONE famously met the explorer Henry STANLEY. So is Stanley, supposed to be Livingstone? I think we can presume so.

That said, such references (which McCann makes no reference to) are rare. The story was really about the battle between transient “here today, gone tomorrow” politicians in government and their battles with the mandarins of the civil servant personified by Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) who basically seek to obstruct everything and prevent any real change occurring.

The series had surprisingly few teething problems other than the initial selection of an unsuitable director for the pilot episode. Eddington, a wartime conscientious objector and leftist political animal was initially keen on the role of Humphrey, recognising the part had the best lines. Thankfully, he was persuaded instead that he was perfect for the role of the initially well meaning but increasingly cynical Hacker.

Hawthorne, brilliant as Sir Humphrey, became famous for his part in exchanges like this one from the first episode:

Hacker: Who else is in this department?
Sir Humphrey: Well briefly, sir, I am the Permanent Under Secretary of State, known as the Permanent Secretary. Woolley here is your Principal Private Secretary. I too have a Principal Private Secretary and he is the Principal Private Secretary to the Permanent Secretary. Directly responsible to me are ten Deputy Secretaries, 87 Under Secretaries and 219 Assistant Secretaries. Directly responsible to the Principal Private Secretaries are plain Private Secretaries, and the Prime Minister will be appointing two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and you will be appointing your own Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Hacker: Can they all type?
Sir Humphrey: None of us can type. Mrs Mackay types: she’s the secretary.

The South African born Hawthorne reportedly lacked confidence perhaps stemming from a fear of his homosexuality becoming public (as eventually happened, much to his annoyance, at the time of his Oscar nomination for The Madness of King George in 1995). A less political man than Eddington, he was reportedly occasionally irritated by the latter’s supreme confidence.

The trio was completed by Derek Fowlds as Sir Bernard. A man until then, best known for co-starring with Basil Brush, Fowlds, the only one of the three still alive, comes across as a man refreshingly lacking in vanity.

Veteran comedy writer Graham McCann does a good job of detailing the history of the two series here. He goes too far in rating the series’ wider significance however : “Government in those days (1980), was rather like a tree falling in a forest with no one there to witness it,” he says. This is largely still true. Great as Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, they didn’t change the world that much.

There are unfortunately constraints on just how much sitcoms can really do. Just as there are with ministers.

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Book review: Tim Burton The Iconic Filmmaker and his Work by Ian Nathan

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This is a story about a little boy called Tim.

He was born nearly sixty years ago in California. He grew up, a bit nervous and a bit strange, and looked a little like his own later creation Edward Scissorhands except without the scissory hands. And perhaps not quite as pale.  He basically looked the same for his entire life and later had long relationships with Helena Bonham Carter, the English star of A Room With A View and Fight Club amongst other people. But this book’s not really about that sort of thing. It is about his films.

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After an unhappy spell at Disney working on boring films like The Fox and the Hound, Tim Burton made the first film Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985). The star, Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) a children’s entertainer of the time, later got in trouble when he got caught publicly “misbehaving”  in an adult cinema. But the mass debate over this came later. Tim’s career had been launched.

Since then, he has made nearly twenty films. Most have contained a fantasy element. Some were animated (such as The Corpse Bride). Some were blockbusters (Batman, Batman Returns). Some were black and white (Ed Wood). Eight have Johnny Depp in. All but one have music provided by Danny Elfman who did The Simpsons theme. Some were magical (Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice), some  divided opinion (Mars Attacks!) Very few were actually awful (Planet of the Apes).

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All have been interesting in some way as this attractively illustrated coffee table book reminds us. Burton’s career proves that it is possible to be both offbeat, unconventional and interesting and still be commercially successful. And live happily ever after.

Tim Burton: The Iconic Filmmaker and His Work. Unofficial and Unauthorised by Ian Nathan. Published: Aurum Press, 2016

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Book review: The Impossible Has Happened by Lance Parkin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Book review: Movie Star Chronicles: A Virtual History of the World’s Greatest Movie Stars

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Movie Star Chronicles: A Virtual History of the World’s Greatest Movie Stars

General Editor: Ian Haydn Smith

Foreword by: David Gordon Green

Published by: Aurum Press, October 1st 2015

Who needs a book on films these days? This is 2015, after all. If I need to know about a particular film or film star I just have to fiddle around with my phone for a little bit and the answer will be revealed.

Why does the postman always ring twice? Surely most of the time he doesn’t need to ring at all, particularly if there’s no post that day.

What is a Fassbender? Orson Welles that end well? Will Smith or not? If Christoph Waltz, why does Charles Dance? Natalie Wood but is Robert Shaw?

Such questions are all answered somewhere by Auntie Internet. Contrary to legend, IMDB does not stand for Internet Movie Database. It stands for I Must Destroy Books.

Indeed, if you still have any books at home you might as well make a big bonfire of them now. They’re worthless. Like those ones made of dust in the far future scenes of the film The Time Machine (not the Samantha Mumba one. For God’s sake!) They are worth more as pollution than they are as a book.

Enough silliness. This is a book to restore your faith in books, specifically film books. It is stylish, lovingly put together, well illustrated and written.  It’s basically a page by page guide to 300 film stars living and dead. It is not comprehensive nor does it claim to be. If you’re a fan of Steve Buscemi or John Lithgow as I am, look elsewhere.

But for an attractive and informative coffee table guide to Hollywood’s biggest stars, this is ideal.

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