Cutting It Fine

The Final Cut (Mike Vardy, 1995)

Following House of Cards and To Play the King, we get the third adaptation of Michael Dobbs’s Francis Urquhart trilogy.

Only Dobbs got his knickers in a twist because it dared to conceive of a dead Margaret Thatcher.

If only she were dead and buried.

By now Prime Minister Urquhart is in full Macbeth mode — with continued flashbacks to <spoiler> from part one and less often to <spoiler> from part two — suggesting he has a conscience after all. In addition to this we get Back Story of his time in Cyprus as a soldier and flashbacks to two violent deaths. This hasn’t seemed to have troubled him before, but presumably the attempt to find a settlement between Greek and Turkish Cyprus is the cause here. But clearly an era is ending and he’s looking top be provided for — a nice little earner of an insider deal.

The minnows are circling and the successors are lining up — can he fend them off as well as the relatives of the Cyprus dead? I guess if we follow the tragic structure we know what will happen, but I’m not sure I buy the mechanism of betrayal (although there’s been hints of an affair between a major and less major character). Again, Richardson carries the series as Urquhart; everyone else just reminds you of someone you’ve seen since on tv.

(Follows House of Cards and To Play the King)

A Jack for a King

To Play the King (Paul Seed, 1993)

The second in the House of Cards trilogy, with Seed’s direction marginally better and cutaways in the first or two episodes to beggars and the homeless. As before, Ian Richardson’s acting is superb and this sells the series.

Having begun the first series with dispensing of Thatcher, this begins with the crowning of a new king who I suspect is never actually named. If this were more willing to be sf — to embrace its parallel world — then they would name him and tell Michael Kitchen to stop doing a Prince Charles impression. There is Princess Charlotte, an ex-wife, although it’s not clear who it is, because it’s not the King’s ex-wife, who is blonde and has a son. Princess Charlotte, meanwhile, has a line about being warned about a car accident if she steps out of line.

So Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is prime minister and bored and sees a new challenge in facing down the political views of the new King. The new King, meanwhile, feels he should Have His Say, at the risk of bringing the constitution to a crisis point. (As opposed to writing secret spidery letters, say.) There’s a game of cat and mouse about who stays in their seat, but we know there’s part three.

Meanwhile, Urquhart gains a new advisor, Sarah Jarding (Kitty Aldridge), a kick-ass pollster who can poll any opinion you need. And the King has an advisor or two, a gay white man David Mycroft (Nicholas Farrell) and a Black Briton Chloe Carmicahel (Rowena King). And because no one can keep it in their trousers in these dramas, affairs start even though there are elections in the offing. Are you people stupid?

Another subplot had Urquhart’s former colleague as a whip become Chairman of the party and then denied a cabinet place after the election — a similar thing having happened to Urquhart in series one. I guess this is dramatic irony, but you’d think FU would be aware of the insensitivity.

In summary, watchable but faintly ludicrous, as the bodies build up.

(Follows House of Cards and followed by The Final Cut

Card Sharp

House of Cards (Paul Seed, 1990)

I never saw House of Cards on first broadcast in 1990 — television viewing was limited as a student although I did see Twin Peaks. It had the good fortune to be broadcast just as the Conservative leadership election was underway and we were to leave Thatcherism behind forever. Hooray.

Koff.

So chief whip Francis Urquhart (Ian Richardson) is expecting a cabinet post in the aftermath of Thatcher’s successor’s election but is let down. He seeks revenge by deciding to manufacture a scandal that will bring him down and engineer things so that he gets to be the next leader of the conservative party and prime minister.

Here we have a modernisation of various Shakespeare plots — Richard III (although maybe not hugely — do I recall an acting out of the Olivier version?) and Macbeth, with Urquhart’s wife (Diane Fletcher) playing a greater role than in the Michael Dobbs book and clearly being a Lady Macbeth. I suspect there are shades of Iago there, too. Richardson is glorious immoral/amoral and the device of talking to the camera has the self-serving/self-deluding impact of Shakespearean monologues, especially Iago’s.

Of course, the series doesn’t stay with his point of view — it does skip around the other MPs and aides, but more to the point we have a lady journalist, Mattie Storin (Susannah Harker), who Urquhart uses to his benefit. It should be noted that all the jobs that women can do, lady journalist seems to scare the dramatic horses least. And she also falls into the thing that so frequently annoys me as cheap drama — sleeping with the story/suspect. You just wouldn’t. You also feel she would be a little less trusting of him.

But there are shenanigans.

Whilst the drama itself feels current — although big desktop computers! dial telephones — the direction by Paul Seed does not. It is of course very talky and there’s distinct telling not showing, but somehow that never stopped The West Wing. There were moments when I thought it a fine radio play.

And then there were the various cuts to rats.

Whatever can that mean?

NO, DON’T TELL ME — THAT WAS IRONY.

Koffs.

Heavy-handed, much?

If LoveFilm sends me the sequels, then I shall write briefly about those. (I did — To Play the King and The Final Cut)

The Crow Bridge

“We can’t go to the police, the police are boring. Alfred Hitchcock says so”
— The Beiderbecke Affair

Stonemouth (Charles Martin, 2015)
There’s a sense of deja vu about this Iain Banks narrative — the hulking bridge, the family secret, the huge clan, sex and drugs and violence. I remember being gripped by the television adaptation of The Crow Road nearly twenty years ago and the astonishing performance by Peter Capaldi who deserves to play more great roles. In this two-part television adaptation we have a similar set of tangled relationships in a small Scottish town — at a wedding Stewart Gilmour (Christian Cooke) sees his fiancée Ellie Murston (Charlotte Spencer) kissing someone and then disappears off to a toilet cubicle for a line of coke and a shag. This understandably leads to his being chased out of town. The Murstons are a small time set of gangsters, tartan Sopranos, locked in a rivalry with Mike MacAvett (Gary Lewis), who sells fish even if he doesn’t make people sleep with them. Two years later, Stewart’s best friend Callum Murston (Samuel Robertson) has apparently committed suicide off the Stoun Bridge and Stewart ventures home for the funeral.

Obviously he is taking a risk but the Murstons’ lieutenant Powell (Brian Gleeson) says it’ll be okay, as long he’s gone after the funeral, pays his respects to the Don (Peter Mullan) and keeps away from Ellie. Well, one out of three isn’t bad and without those two there wouldn’t be a plot. Stewart had received a video message from Callum on his mobile before his death and local police officer, old school friend Dougie (Ncuti Gatwa) suggests there is something fishy about the autopsy. Which of the family secrets is the one that either led to Callum being offed or killing himself? And do people really send video messages rather than leave voicemails?

I have to confess that from early on I latched onto gay best friend Ferg (Chris Fulton), who has engaged in shenanigans with a number of people in the town and wondered whether the not-quite-impossible love triangle of Callum-Stewart-Ferg had become possible in Stewart’s absence. The gay gangster is a trope, after all, and usually does not end well. (That might amount to a spoiler, of course. Or a bluff. Or a double bluff.) The plot itself bluffs us and counter bluffs, as it should, with a few moments of ambiguity left for us to question.

Hanging over all of this is the bridge, not quite a refugee from another Banks novel, but quite clearly CGId in, imposed onto the Scottish landscape. Whilst on the one hand let us marvel that tv can do such a thing, on the other it doesn’t seem quite real (in part because we know it isn’t real) and there’s a sense of irreality over the whole. Our Tartan noir has given us Rebus, Brookmyre, Trainspotting, but the contemporary rural Scotland has been Balamory and Hamish Macbeth and Monarch of the Glen. There are a few throwaway lines about Scottish heritage and Presbyterianism, but I can’t quite see the turf wars of the New Jersey bois.

It works because of an extraordinary performance from Mullan as Don — and Banks was clearly winking at us with that name — and a lesser extent from Gleeson. Mullan can do the hardman, but you can see the restrained sorrow and anger at the same time, you can believe there could be a moment of extraordinary violence, you can believe he has the pair of balls he does. If his two surviving sons — referred to as the Chuckle Brothers, and that too must be a trope — were a quarter as hard, then he could put a bid in for Glasgow.

And so Stewart can be menaced but —

— and here we run into the two flaws in the adaptation.

I need to do some thinking about first person or intradiegetic narration. Such a narrator can only tell us what they’ve seen and if, therefore, they die… Well, okay, it’s still possible to narrate whilst drowned in a swimming pool, but not often. But Stewart seems likely to be escaping, er, Scot free, because he’s narrating — although it might not be clear when he’s narrating from. We can only see what Stewart sees — although there are two moments I recall in the first episode where this is broken away from. In the second half of the second episode, even more so. Of course, Blade Runner (1982) is more interesting (if not necessarily better) than the Director’s and Final Cuts because of that narration which gives Deckard ownership of the film and the replicants’ viewpoints. In a novel, it’s easier to mix viewpoints (and Banks does, of course — see Complicity, say); film and tv tends to go for narrow or omniscient. To my mind, the mix is inelegant.

The second flaw is I don’t think Martin can handle those action scenes. I watched the programme on iPlayer and there was something wrong with the streaming as Stewart was chased around the town. Even so, I think there was some slow motion. Indeed, the second episode had a few aspirations to pop video — but it had a great soundtrack so I can see the temptation. But the Chuckle Brothers (who were there in a different guise in Pride) weren’t quite convincing. Stewart was going to have the shit beaten out of him unless he was rescued.

And don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.

I said, don’t forget, it has been carefully established that there is a cop in town, who is an old friend of Stewart’s.

Ah, apparently the script writer did. Or Banks did.

At some point, you go to the police, don’t you?

Spoilers!

I need to read the novel to see whether Banks handles the climax any better. On the one hand, there’s an emotional tug at the heart strings that feels awkward but there’s a move to consolation. It has a choice of two endings: consolation or melodrama. I’m not convinced it picked the right option. I think the Banks of The Wasp Factory would have picked differently.

A la recherche de notes perdus

“The Lost Notes” (2015)

So, of course, the voice isn’t quite right. Michael Palin is not Oliver Postgate — but he’s close. Cathy Butler suggested David Attenborough, but I think the natural history vibe would be too much. But, still, imagine the classic scene from Life on Earth with Attenborough and gorillas, but add Clangers.

It’s odd, though. We always call it The Clangers, although the definite article isn’t in the title screen. That familiar Earth in space, imagined first in a time when we’d hardly seen that view. The Moon’s there, too, which I think is new. Then the move through space to the Clangers’ planet (that took much longer in 1969, but consider on a £10 budget how much a slow zoom can save) and looking at the Clangers themselves. Compare today’s budget.

Pretty much as I remember them, no tubby Dalek redesign, and of course the planet is probably too curved to fit with the scale of the whole, with an angled shot to play with perspective. We even see them upside down. Neat. The dust from the surface — someone has thought about gravity but they never could have done the dust in 1969, and I’m guessing the first animation was pre-Armstrong and Aldrin.

It feels like a classic Clangers plot — the notes from the music tree have blown away and the Clangers go searching for them. This gives us cameos from the soup dragon and the iron chicken — no froglets, and what is that sky hippo from the credits? Seen it before, I’m sure. The fort da game is completed, of course — as I said to Chris last night, jeopardy is hard for children’s television. Restoration, but also change. An environmental subtext?

Oh, and adult subtexts: is the music as the storm gathers a hint of The Wizard of Oz? I hope Mother Clanger gets more to do than laundry and that’s a phallic telescope, Major Clanger. Granny asleep?

I believe I have moist eyes.

There’s a moral pointed, though. “Never give up, never surrender.” Heavy-handed? Maybe.

Memories of the Noise Machine

Despite preferring written to visual science fiction, I suspect I began with television sf. I suspect the first sf I encountered was The Magic Roundabout and The Clangers. Later today, the BBC will broadcast the first new episode of the later in forty years. Given the treatment of The Magic Roundabout, I am understandably nervous.

That actually needs a bit glossing – the sf part of The Magic Roundabout was a film, Dougal and the Blue Cat, of which we had the album, the soundtrack cut to about sixty minutes. The Magic Garden comes under threat from the Blue Voice and her minion, Buxton, the Blue Cat, and the garden’s inhabitants are thrown into prison. Only Dougal evades capture, going under cover as Blue Peter (the Blue Dog) and is sent on a mission to the Moon… I never saw the film until it was released on video, but I did eventually get to see it on a big screen. It resonates through my unconscious.

The Clangers, like The Magic Roundabout, was originally broadcast on BBC1. My memory is they came at the end of children’s television (Blue Peter, say) and before the evening news, but it clearly varied from week to week. The creators, Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin had been producing paper- and puppet-based animations since 1958 in a converted cowshed just north of Canterbury. The earliest Clanger appeared in Noggin and the Moon Mouse (1967), a spin-off book from Noggin the Nog (1959–65); the concept evolved into a species who live on a small planet, converting rubbish and debris into useful stuff.

Firmin is still around, in his late 80s and I’ve occasionally seen him around, even sat next to him at a screening of The Clangers. His wife, Joan, is a bookbinder and artist, and they had six daughters, at least two of whom are artists (and Emily is the girl in Bagpuss). He still is active, as far as I can tell making limited edition linocuts and vinyl prints on an antique printing press. He was the creator of Basil Brush and worked with Rolf Harris and then Wally Whyton on children’s television in addition to his collaborations with Postgate.

Postgate PlaquePostgate, who died in 2008 in Broadstairs, is the more intriguing figure of the two, whose voice is engraved on my memory. He was the son of radical historian Raymond Postgate and Daisy Lansbury, the grandson of Labour party leader George Lansbury and classicist John Percival Postgate and great grandson of surgeon and food campaigner John Postgate, His aunt, Margaret Cole, was a Fabian politician and social campaigner, whose husband G.D.F. Cole cowrote The Common People, 1746–1946 (1946) with Raymond Postgate. Postgate was a conscientious objector and anti-nuclear campaigner, and the last episode of The Clanger was broadcast on the eve of the October 1974 election, satirising the political process at the time. (There used to be a blog of Postgate’s thoughts on the Iraq war – I have been unable to relocate this). It should be no surprise that a Malcolm Hulke-scripted episode of Doctor Who features the Master watching an episode of The Clangers.

The Clangers is a product of a different era. An innocent era, one might say, but only on the surface (Rolf Harris?). The Postgate and Firmin animations have a charm that I think stays the right side of whimsey, there is an inevitable slowness to them that would be closer to, say, the first of the Wallace and Gromit stop motion animations than the latest Shaun the Sheep. And for whatever reason, I find the Clangers (and the inhabitants of the Magic Garden), realer than most CGI.

There were only twenty-seven episodes of The Clangers ever made – and my heart sank when I heard there would be a remake. I’d shuddered at the Nigel Planer-voiced The Magic Roundabouts that Danot had made after Eric Thompson stopped (Mr MacHenry is not Scottish – know your canon), gave up partway through the Dougal movie and couldn’t bring myself to watch the new cartoons (apparently the line “‘Time for Bed,’ said Zebedee” was nixed because the audience might not be going to bed when they watched the episodes). I am scared.

But NuClangers has the involvement of Daniel Postgate, and I am sure he would want to honour the spirit of his father’s work. The Solar Eclipse episode was reassuring https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsAyyOKoTik but when I get to watching the new episodes, on iPlayer I suspect, I will feel a little trepidation.

Incidentally, a number of Postgate/Firmin puppets are on show at Canterbury Heritage Museum, but note that outside of Easter to September it is only opening during school holidays. There is also Postgate’s Becket frieze.

Too Long a Season

I’d somehow missed out on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I’d seen the crossover movie Star Trek: Generations (David Carson, 1994) and even taught Star Trek: First Contact (Jonathan Frakes, 1996) and I’d seen odd episodes, but not the in-depth, episode to episode viewing of a TV-run. Was it on SKY? I didn’t and still don’t have that, but more to the point, aside from a brief period in 1991, I didn’t have regular access to TV between 1988 and 1992. I suppose I knew enough people with boxsets or off-air recordings, but I didn’t care enough.

I came to it partly with a curiosity about the 44 minute story arc. Most American drama has this pattern and for crime it seems to work ok – soapish preamble, crime committed, work the streets, red herring, nab the suspect, interrogation and wry afterword. Firefly also seemed to pull it off, as did Buffy and Angel before it. Doctor Who, on the other hand, doesn’t, although perhaps I’m brainwashed by the sitcom-in-clusters-of-four format of the original run. The alien society is barely established – although the inclination is to be Earth-bound and it cranks the jeopardy up to eleven very fast. Then the Doctor rewrites someone’s DNA or reverses the polarity of the neutron flow and everything is hunky dory timey wimey.

Someone, I forget who, suggested that Firefly (and by extension ST: TNG) works because of a bigger cast. We end up with three parallel narratives that dovetail together. Doctor Who probably bifurcates into the Doctor’s narrative and his companion’s, the companion getting into trouble and needing to be rescued. We get insufficient parallax on the nova. I did recently wonder whether the Doctor, as virtual superhero is so resourceful and fixed that he doesn’t offer the scope for a character arc, the writers instead focusing on the companion’s experiences, taking audience identification too far. We end up with The Amy Pond Adventures or Clara Who? But then the character arcs of virtually all continuing dramas are keyed much more to restoration than the transformation of the feature film.

To be honest, I don’t recall if the original Star Trek was closer in satisfaction to Firefly than nu-Who. It’s decades since I saw more than the odd episode and my tastes are perhaps more sniping. I’d seen and actually quite enjoyed bits of Enterprise, where the missions were a bit rougher around the edges. But the OS crew were my crew and so here we have their replacements. Picard is the new Kirk, clearly an authority figure, less likely to go on dangerous missions, and keeping it more in his trousers than Kirk ever did. The romantic lead duties are passed onto his Number One (stop sniggering) Riker, waved of hair and hairy of chest, and Picard’s BFF rather too quickly. Spock had been the deputy, and science officer, so here we have an android, Data, who is learning to be human (“Call me Pinocchio”) and thus doesn’t have appropriate emotions in his logic. My favourite character of the old series was Bones, but here we have Dr Beverly Crusher, seeming to be an old flame of Picard’s and widow of an officer killed on his watch. Crusher has her son with her, Wesley, presumably an identification figure for the child audience. Deanna Troi is a counsellor, who gets to state the bleeding obvious. Then there’s Geordie, whose accent is as convincing as Scottie’s and who wears a hair band over his eyes. Then there’s Worf, a grumpy Klingon, and Tasha Yar, who seems to be some kind of bouncer for the Enterprise.

So, having made it to the end of the first series, what do I think? The original series was famed for its diversity – it had a woman of colour on the crew as a receptionist. Baby steps. Twenty years later and in the regular cast we have three women – a doctor, a counsellor and Tasha Yar. Being a doctor is arguably above being a nurse (the other female rôle in TOS, aside from love interest), but it is a caring, nurturing profession in theory and she is also a mother. Troi as empath is meant to be all touchy feely and is able to say that she thinks the strangers they meet are hiding things because she doesn’t realise she’s in a drama that depends on such things. Yar, meanwhile, also gets to be suspicious of strangers because that’s her job as bouncer. Although sometimes she gets to operate the transporters. She’s clearly under used and one can only imagine how frustrated the actor was.

We have two actors of colour on the bridge – most obviously Geordie (and there’s an episode when we see a grown up Wesley and he’s pretty impressed by what he sees – could he also tick the diversity box that broadens ST’s notorious heteronormativity?). Then there’s Worf – and whilst there’s no reason that actors of colour shouldn’t play aliens, there’s an allegorical minefield in which seeing aliens as people of colour feeds into seeing people of colour as aliens (see also under: racism and monkeys). As a Klingon he’s presumably stereotyped as a military man (although you should try his delicious angel cakes) but surely Yar is the military officer? Or are there two military officers on this much-vaunted we-come-in-peace (for certain cohorts of mankind) mission?

Not all the regular cast are in each episode, and I get the feeling that the writers didn’t quite know what to do with half of the crew. Of course, you could argue that at any one time a third of the crew ought to be tucked up in bed and so this is to be expected, but we don’t see that kind of daily life. I think the dramatis personae were assembled with issues in mind, but the writers haven’t quite got there. Ah, young Wesley has discovered something but he’s a kid so let’s not believe him. Again.

Let’s take “Angel One” (25 January 1988) as the archetypal episode. The Enterprise arrives at an alien matriarchy in search of survivors from a crashed ship, Odin, and interacts with the local women, although it turns out that all they really needed was a real man such as Riker – because, presumably, a matriarchy is not true equality.

Except it turns out that this was an allegory for the situation in South Africa in the Apartheid era. Excuse me. So are the women Whites and the men Blacks and Coloureds? Or vice versa? How does that work then? Meanwhile, note that with the away team constituted the way it is in this episode, an African American gets to sit in the captain’s chair. Progress, only he comes down with the manflu that is the b-plot of the episode. I’m not at all clear what the episode has to say about Apartheid. “Why can’t we all just get along?”? Star Fleet has this non-intervention policy (which is obviously as consistent as that of Gallifrey in Pertwee-era Who) that is ironic in Reagan’s America and enables the crew to debate Moral Rightness with a not always unbearable smugness.

The final two episodes threaten to rip Star Fleet apart and introduce new aliens, the Romulans. Clearly this is the point when they think they’ve got their mojo. Having carefully established that when space missions last years, crew want their families with them, in “Conspiracy” (9 May 1988) the Enterprise pops back to Earth to investigate a conspiracy. The scheme seems to include worm eating. The Enterprise and Picard turn out to be top dogs in Star Fleet. The following week, in “The Neutral Zone” (16 May 1988), they pick up an abandoned spaceship and defrost from inside it three people from old Earth of a couple of centuries ago. The job of the episode is to demonstrate how far human civilisation has come: a woman is concerned with her children and her children’s descendants, one of whom has her husband’s name (because these things never alter); a man who wants to check his stock market portfolio but not his privilege (and Picard talks about how civilisation is beyond things like money now like he’s some kind of commie) and a man who wants to hit the bars and pick up some ladies (although Riker would be a better wingman than Data, frankly). These are the values the 24th century have left behind. Supposedly. They’ve also left behind incurable diseases and Wesley’s manflu from the plot device holodeck shows how little immunity the crew have to such things.

The Enterprise heads off into the unknown, or Season Two.