Thursday, 31 January 2013

Harlem Heroics

When I first began reading 2000 AD, I loved Judge Dredd, but I was fascinated by the shared universe in which he exists. Many other strips from the Galaxy's Greatest Comic take place in and around Dredd's Mega-City One, other Mega-Cities across the planet and its Cursed Earth. Some are contemporary with Dredd, some take place in his past and some in his future. Many are spin-offs, but some begin entirely independently and were subsequently dragged into the same continuity as Old Stoney Face.

Harlem Heroes is just such a strip. Appearing a week before Dredd in 2000 AD's very first Prog it featured a sport that was a cross between American Football and Boxing played with jetpacks and a team that someone was out to kill.

In 'The Academy Of Law', it transpired that one of Judge Dredd's potential colleagues was the son of Giant, the Harlem Heroes Team Captain. In light of that I have taken Dredd Alert back to the beginning to cover Harlem Heroes as well.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

"The Past Is Another Country. 1987 Is Just The Isle Of Wight"

So says the Ninth Doctor in Doctor Who's Father's Day.

1987 was the year that Klaus Barbie went on trial for war crimes committed during World War II, the first ever Rugby World Cup kicked off, Margaret Thatcher was re-elected as Prime Minister for a third time, the Dusky Seaside Sparrow went extinct and someone briefly hijacks the signal of two American TV stations replaces it with a strange video of a man in a Max Headroom mask.

These are a few of my favourite things from 1987:

Withnail And I
Paul McGann, Richard E. Grant, Richard Griffiths and Ralph Brown are all fantastic in possibly the most quotable film ever made. All of Withnail And I's set pieces are brilliant, the soundtrack is wonderful and "The sky's beginning to bruise, night must fall and we shall be forced to camp" is one of the most beautiful sentences ever spoken aloud.

Empire Of The Sun
Christian Bale is phenomenally good in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of J.G. Ballard's autobiographical novel. His journey from spoiled ex-pat brat to Internment Camp prisoner-of-war wide boy, witnessing the flash from an atomic bomb along the way, is fascinating and beautifully told.

The Living Daylights
Timothy Dalton's first foray as 007 establishes him as the best Bond. Maryam d'Abo, Art Malik, John Rhys Davies and Joe Don Baker are great. Stunning model work, some very impressive stunt work and a great script mark this out as a brilliant Bond movie. Darker than many of its predecessors yet losing none of what makes Bond Bond.

Radio Days
Woody Allen's tribute to the Golden Age of Radio of his youth is a love letter to a bygone era that rises above mere nostalgia to be a fantastic film. Mia Farrow, Julie Kavner, Seth Green, Danny Aiello, Wallace Shawn, Michael Tucker, Dianne Wiest and Woody himself all give wonderful performances. "Who's Pearl Harbor?"

Woody Allen's other movie this year is a tense and claustrophobic film that makes no claims on having the gag rate of Radio Days. Mia Farrow, Dianne West and Elaine Stritch are wonderful. September is akin to a very bleak piece of theatre on film.

The story may be thin and the script isn’t overburdened with great lines, but Predator has something indefinable that raises it above most of the action movie competition. The jungle location, music and sound design are great, Bill Duke gives every line such fantastic conviction and the realisation of the creature is brilliant at every stage. The allegory of a hunter more deadly than man is apt and explored here without comment.

Full Metal Jacket
Matthew Modine, Vincent D'Onofrio and R. Lee Ermey are fantastic in Stanley Kubrick's Vietnam war movie par excellence.

Doctor Who: Paradise Towers; Delta And The Bannermen; Dragonfire
Introducing Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor, the twenty-fourth season is possibly the most varied. Doctor Who does High Rise as the Doctor and Mel visit Paradise Towers in a story that gives the first real insight into the character of the new Doctor and McCoy is wonderful. Elizabeth Spriggs, Brenda Bruce, Clive Merrison and Judy Cornwall are great, the sets are beautiful and Stephen Wyatt's script features one of the best examples of 'world-building' in SF. "speaking from Wales in England", Delta And The Bannermen is a fun runaround with "space buns and tea", the fifties period setting is really nice, Ken Dodd, Don Henderson, Stubby Kaye, Johnny Dennis, Richard Davies and Hugh Lloyd are great and the question mark umbrella introduced here is a brilliant prop. Season finale, Dragonfire is excellent: the philosophical debates are nice, the pop culture references that take in everything from Alien to The Wizard Of Oz via The Unfolding Text and a lot more besides are great, Stellar’s scenes throughout are lovely, Kane’s death is fantastic and Mel’s farewell scene is wonderful, but this is Ace’s story and Sophie Aldred makes a great debut as the character arrives almost fully formed. McCoy, Edward Peel and Tony Selby are fantastic, while Bonnie Langford gives her best performance. The story is more traditional in tone than the rest of this season and a great sign of things to come…

Star Trek: The Next Generation: Encounter At Farpoint; The Naked Now; Where No One Has Gone Before; Hide And Q; Haven
The pilot episode of the third Star Trek series sees the launch of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D and an Encounter At Farpoint, that ably introduces all of the regular characters. Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Gates McFadden, Brent Spiner and Colm Meaney all make great debuts and DeForest Kelley's cameo is lovely, but John de Lancie steals the show out from under everybody as Q. Overlooking the fact that The Naked Now is a near-remake of the original series episode The Naked Time and also that it was a terrible idea for a second episode, but the intoxicated interactions of the crew are a lot of fun. The Enterprise boldly goes Where No One Has Gone Before in the first great episode of TNG with impressive imagery and great performances from Stanley Kamel and Eric Menyuk. De Lancie makes a welcome return and wears as Q turns his attentions to Riker in Hide And Q. A visit to planet Haven and an episode with a slight story, but a wonderful performance from Star Trek's First Lady Majel Barrett as Lwaxana Troi.

The Return Of Sherlock Holmes: The Sign Of Four
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's second Holmes novel is adapted into the first of Granada's feature-length episodes and the results are very good indeed. As usual Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke are excellent, but Gordon Gostelow, Emrys James, John Thaw and Toby the dog all make great additions to the cast.

Blackadder The Third: Dish And Dishonesty; Ink And Incapability; Nob And Nobility; Sense And Senility; Amy And Amiability; Duel And Duality
Another series, another generation, another rung down the political ladder sees Blackadder as servant to the prince regent and possibly at his most conniving. The Dunny-on-the-Wold by-election of Dish And Dishonesty is a great parody of the British electoral declarations and giant turnip growing, Helen Atkinson-Wood, Denis Lill and Geoffrey McGivern are wonderful, while Hugh Laurie is a phenomenal addition to the cast. Blackadder's undermining the vocabulary of Dr. Johnson's dictionary in Ink And Incapability and Robbie Coltrane's portrayal of his pericombobulations is fantastic. Tim McInnery, Nigel Planer and Chris Barrie are brilliant in the Scarlet Pimpernelling, Nob And Nobility. I should hate Sense And Senility, since I'm sure it's responsible for the moment after Macbeth is said when someone always, and I do mean always, feels the need to correct the speaker with the phrase The Scottish Play and a wagging finger, but Laurie's delivery of "unaccustomed as I am to public speaking..." is absolutely hilarious, sadly The Bloody Murder Of The Foul Prince Romero And His Enormously Bosomed Wife is unlikely to see the light of day. Miranda Richardson is as wonderful as ever in Amy And Amiability and Stephen Fry is fantastic as Wellingon in Duel And Duality

Yes, Prime Minister: Man Overboard, Official Secrets, A Diplomatic Incident, A Conflict Of Interest
Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Fowlds, John Nettleton, Denis Lill, Christopher Benjamin, Nicholas Courtney, Richard Vernon and Deborah Norton are brilliant in Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn's intricate scripts in the first half of Yes, Prime Minister's second season.

Pulp: Freaks
Described on the cover "Ten stories about power, claustrophobia, suffocation and holding hands", the second album is darker than its immediate predecessor, but it's probably darker than its successors as well. The Freaks of the title aren't celebrated as the 'Mis-Shapes' would be eight years later. The lyrics of the likes of 'I Want You', 'Master Of The Universe' or 'They Suffocate at Night' aren't uplifting, but they are honest, while Russell Senior's vocals on 'Anorexic Beauty' reveal how varied Pulp's sound could be.
Stand-out tracks: 'I Want You', 'Being Followed Home', 'Master Of The Universe', 'Life Must Be So Wonderful', 'Anorexic Beauty', 'Don't You Know', 'They Suffocate at Night'

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett
Pratchett broadens the scope of his Discworld novels beyond Rincewind with the introduction of Granny Weatherwax and contrasting the female witches being in touch with nature with the male wizards whose magic is somewhere between science and ceremony.

Mort by Terry Pratchett
The fourth Discworld novel was the one that defined the possibilities of the series as it took a minor character from the first three and pushed him into centre stage. The day to day business of the Discworld's anthropomorphic personification of Death is fantastic, but the idea of the titular Mort being hired as his apprentice is genius. It would be easy for a book about Death (and a book about death) to be downbeat, morose or crass, but this is intelligent, witty and has a great depth to it. He likes cats, curries, talking in BLOCK CAPITALS and would call his Binky and over the course of this novel it increasingly feels as though Death is on our side.

Where's Wally by Martin Handford
Can you find our bespectacled and behatted hero as he hides at the beach, ski slopes, camp site, railway station, airport, sports stadium, museum, department store and the fairground in the most down to earth of his hide and seeks. Augmented, but also bizarrely censored in 1997, so there was both more and less to look for.

Doctor Who: Profits Of Doom!; The Gift; The World Shapers
The Sixth Doctor, Peri and Frobisher defeat a horde of malevolent slugs in the very atmospheric Profits Of Doom! and the slugs work better here than on TV. The trio visit Zazz, planet of jazz, for a party in The Gift and it's nice to se them enjoying themselves, the interlude on the moon and Shug are great. The World Shapers sees the TARDIS return to Marinus in a bonkers, but brilliantly imaginative end to the Sixth Doctors run: John Ridgway's artwork is phenomenal, the deaths are horrific and the continuity is convoluted, but also compelling.

Watchmen: Fearful Symmetry; The Abyss Gazes Also; A Brother To Dragons; Old Ghosts; The Darkness Of Mere Being; Two Riders Were Approaching...; Look On My Works, Ye Mighty...; A Stronger Loving World
The second half of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' masterpiece increasingly plays with structure, from the symmetrical page layouts of Fearful Symmetry to the increasing influence of Tales Of The Black Freighter. Several issues focus on the story of one individual: Rorshach in The Abyss Gazes Also, Night Owl and Silk Spectre in A Brother To Dragons and Doctor Manhattan in The Darkness Of Mere Being and the characterisation is fantastic throughout. The more ensemble pieces Old Ghosts, Two Riders Were Approaching... and Look On My Works, Ye Mighty... keep the storyline going, while A Stronger Loving World is a phenomenal ending to a phenemenal comic which redefined what the medium was capable of.

Next Month: 1986

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Witness For The Prosecution

Following the incident last year, Sarah and I were both called to give evidence in the resulting trial. It was not an experience I was looking forward to. I kept going over the incident in my mind. I was terrified that I might forget something vital.

Until now I've never needed to know if pleaded, plead or pled is correct. For the record I think they all are, but journalists favour pleaded while apparently those in the legal profession plump for pled. I will follow their lead.

The charge was Attempted Murder, while the defendant had pled guilty only to the lesser charge of Actual Bodily Harm.

The court was an intimidating place, but a volunteer from Victim Support allayed many of our fears. She was brilliant and was able to answer many questions we didn't even realise we had. She provided us with copies of the statements we gave to the Police. I read and re-read them. I worried that the something vital I might forget was written on these sheets of paper and I scoured them to try and find it.

In the end neither of us were required to give evidence because the defendant changed his plea to guilty, although not to the charge of Attempted Murder, instead he has pled guilty to Wounding With Intent. It appears that the prosecution and defence have made a bargain and met somewhere in the middle.

The relief when we discovered that we wouldn't be needed was extraordinary and although I had been worried about it, still somehow a little anti-climactic. I don't know if it was the adrenalin of it or something else, but after the relief came the headache. I hadn't touched a drop, but I felt like I was hungover.

It was a very odd rollercoaster to be on.

The defendant will be sentenced later in the year, but the long and the short of it is that he won't be getting out soon.

Monday, 21 January 2013

My Favourite Martian

The Geek Twins are holding the My Favourite Martian Bloghop and inviting everyone to write about their favourite alien, whether they are from Mars or not...

It was tough to choose just one I considered Spock, Worf, Odo, Quark, Rom, Nog, Zek, Garak, Weyoun, Martok, Tuvok & Phlox from the various Star Treks, Chewbacca & Yoda from Star Wars, Tweak from Judge Dredd, Ford Prefect from The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy, The Gronk from Strontium Dog, Dargo & Chiana from Farscape and Nibbler from Futurama, but somehow inevitably I ended up at...

The Doctor, from Doctor Who

Eleven reasons why I chose the Doctor:

1. He begins as intriguing, but distinctly unlikeable. How many loveable characters start out as kidnappers, that consider committing murder and lie to their travelling companions? I can name one. William Hartnell's Doctor is not always easy to like, but even harder to dislike.

2. He can regenerate. Many series are forced to recast as they mature and ignore the fact that a new actor has taken over. Not Doctor Who, they embrace it. He's the same, but different. Hartnell started Doctor Who off on a great footing, but the supremely talented Patrick Troughton ensured its longevity.

3. He could become an action hero without it damaging the show. Jon Pertwee's Doctor was still an intelligent leading man, but he did alien martial arts and worked with the military. The format of the show changed enormously and yet there was never any doubt that it was the same TV show.

4. He is an alien. Sometimes he fits in, sometimes he doesn't, sometimes he doesn't want to. Tom Baker was obviously continually asking himself how would an alien do this? Whether its accidentally hitting himself in the head with a chair in The Android Invasion, finding uses for his scarf or proffering a jelly baby, you were never sure how he would react.

5. He is timeless. He is at his youngest when he's an old man and Peter Davison plays an old man in a young body brilliantly.

6. He proved that the clothes do not maketh the man. Sartorially, his clothes are often criticised for standing out (in particular the ensemble worn by Colin Baker), but I would argue they should. A man out of time, should never fit in.

7. He sees the big picture and plays the long game. Sylvester McCoy's dark Doctor bragged about being judged by the quality of his enemies. He would keep people in the dark, put them in danger and let them die in the short term as long as the ends justified the means.

8. His story can never really end. The series ended in 1989, but never really went away. After seven years off the air, Paul McGann brought the Time Lord back to life in 1996. When that didn't lead to a series, it left a void filled by books, comic strips, radio, audio CDs, etc. Nine years after the US TV movie, Doctor Who got another fresh start. If it all ended tomorrow, I'm confident that it would be back before too long.

9. Sometimes he lets someone else save the day. How brave is the series that has a huge relaunch and allows its main character to be almost passive? Fantastic, but passive. Christopher Eccleston's Doctor inspires others to save the day: Rose, Jabe, Gwyneth, Mickey, the possible last Dalek, Cathica, Pete, Jack, Blon and Lynda with a Y all step up to the plate in one way or another, while the Doctor doesn't.

10. Sometimes he can't move on and sometimes he has to. He fled his homeworld and probably barely missed it until he could never go back. He formed lasting friendships and briefer acquaintances all the time, but each of David Tennant's three seasons explores a different relationship: romantic love, unrequited love and friendship.

11. He's outmanoeuvred by his own future. The Doctor's past catches up with him as much as any other character, but as a time traveller the things he is about to do are all already done. Sort of. It's an idea used in Battlefied and to an extent in the multi-Doctor stories, but it really comes into its own with the introduction of River Song. Sometimes so complex that you may need a diagram, her toing and froing, backwards and forwards, with and without Matt Smith's Doctor really shows the possibilities of time travel.

Here's a photo of all eleven Doctors together (presumably from the filming of the forthcoming The Eleven Doctors, you heard it here first):

And this is a somewhat terrifying caricature blending them all together again:

But enough about me or the Doctor, who's your favourite alien?

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Monkey Tennis?

I wrote this article for Cult Britannia in August 2012:

Monkey Tennis?
By David Black

When Alan Partridge sat down to lunch with BBC TV's Chief Commissioning Editor Tony Hayers in the first episode of I'm Alan Partridge, three momentous things happened.

The first and most important for Alan was the revelation that there wouldn't be a second series of his TV chat show Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge. The third was the funniest example of cheese brandishing in a visual medium. In between these two events something extraordinary happens. Alan is obviously disappointed by the news that he hasn't been re-commissioned and so Hayers offers to listen to his other ideas. He is quite taken aback as Alan turns the lunch into an impromptu pitch meeting.

This scene not only offers us a hilarious insight into the workings of Alan's mind, but with the benefit of fifteen years hindsight it seems entirely possible that the panicked scramble of a fictional third-rate television presenter has accurately predicted the future of British television.

Alan: Shoestring, Taggart, Spender, Bergerac, Morse. What does that say to you about regional detective series?
Tony: There's too many of them?
Alan: That's one way of looking at it. Another way of looking at it is: people like them, let's make some more of them.

Alan goes on to outline his idea for Norwich-based detective series Swallow and while television has so far chosen not to feature the lawman of Norfolk's crime capital, the existence of Lewis, Endeavour, HolbyBlue, Vera, Midsummer Murders, Rosemary And Thyme, Inspector George Gently, The Inspector Lynley Mysteries, Judge John Deed, Merseybeat, Murder City, Rebus, Scott & Bailey and Wire In The Blood would seem to vindicate Alan's position.

Alan: Alan Attack! Like The Cook Report, but with a more slapstick approach.
Tony: No.

Tony Hayers took the high road on this one, but sadly in reality television executives green-lit the likes of Don't Get Done Get Dom, Rip Off Britain, Cowboy Builders and Rogue Traders (apparently featuring an extra rogue) taking consumer issues and making light of them. Slapstick may not necessarily be the order of the day, but they are often crammed full of embarrassing puns.

Alan: Right, ah, now you'll like this one. Knowing M.E., Knowing You. I, Alan Partridge, talk to M.E. sufferers about the condition. You know, we intersperse it with their favourite pop songs, make it light-hearted, you know, give them a platform, you've got to keep the energy up, because… You don't like it?
Tony: No.

Once again, Alan is ahead of the game here. Want to make a documentary with a potentially serious subject matter, but worried that the audience won't give it a chance? Give it jokey title like The Undateables, The Hoarder Next Door, Seven Dwarves, Embarrassing Bodies or Beauty And The Beast. Then you can pretend that you aren't exploiting the focus of your efforts by trading off the confrontationally mocking tone of your title against claims that you are spreading awareness. Remember to fill it with inappropriate pop songs as Alan suggests.

Alan: That's alright, that's OK. Inner-City Sumo.
Tony: What's that?
Alan: We take fat people from the inner cities, put them in big nappies, and then get them to throw each other out of a circle that we draw with chalk on the ground.
Tony: No, no it's a bad idea.
Alan: Very cheap to make.

Inner-City Sumo may not have taken off itself, but the television schedules are littered with obesity-related TV shows like Big Body Squad, Supersize Versus Superskinny and My Big Fat Fetish. The most obvious parallel is competitive weight loss reality show The Biggest Loser, I'd be amazed if they've never featured sumo at some point. To be fair to Alan, at least his idea doesn't pretend to be a therapeutic experience.

Alan: Cooking In Prison.
Tony [Laughing]: Oh, no.

Cooking In Prison clone Gordon Behind Bars has just finished its run on Channel 4.

Alan: Youth Hosteling With Chris Eubank.
Tony: No!

We've been spared Youth Hosteling With Chris Eubank itself, but it is an idea that is emblematic of many others. The celebrity-orienteering format shows like All Roads Lead Home, World's Most Dangerous Roads and Wainwright Walks, which saw "face-of-the-channel" Julia Bradbury practically become the BBC's rambling ambassador. The residential cheek-by-jowl living of any reality TV show purporting to be a social experiment (Big Brother houses, etc). The combined effect of these shows is that Youth Hosteling With Chris Eubank suddenly seems much more plausible than many similar ideas that actually made it to the screen. Throw in his episode of the excellent When Louis Met… and it begins to feel as though we genuinely have been Youth Hosteling With Chris Eubank.

Alan: Monkey Tennis?

Sadly while Monkey Tennis has yet to appear on our TV screens it has been made available as a computer game: there is a minigame on the Nintendo Gamecube release of Super Monkey Ball 2 that features monkeys playing tennis. I know that's cheating really, but I couldn't bring myself to leave it out.

Tony: I've listened to your ideas, I've listened to them all, and I haven't liked a single one.

I'm not trying to suggest that there is an actual causal link between this fictional pitch meeting and the change in the landscape of television over the last decade and a half. I'm proposing something far more sinister.

Picture the scene: it's the mid to late 1990s and Peter Baynham, Steve Coogan and Armando Iannucci are putting together a list of TV ideas for their grotesque broadcaster to try to sell. Between the three of them they come up with a list of programme names which each create an instant image, speak volumes about Alan himself and ultimately get a laugh from their contemporary audience. More importantly the list is meant to be ridiculous, a nightmare TV schedule that the 1997 audience can laugh at in the safe and certain knowledge that the BBC they know and love would never put them through this dross.

Yet somehow the opposite has happened. Cut to the present day: Baynham, Coogan and Iannucci's Alan inspired TV wasteland is upon us. Watching the original scene it's easy to laugh at and yet still root for Alan, but looking back over the years in between then and now it's difficult not to wish that more TV executives had the principles of Tony Hayers. Either Alan Partridge was a TV visionary or TV is getting worse. Sadly, it looks as though we are one step closer to Arm Wrestling With Chas And Dave or A Partridge Amongst The Pigeons.

However it is whilst pitching Inner-City Sumo that Alan makes his most revealing comment:

Alan: If you don't do it, Sky will.

How right he was.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Lenin Lunched

Eighteen months ago, I took part in the filming of Lenin's Lunch for the New Factory Of The Eccentric Actor. The film received its premiere the other day, which is very exciting. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend. It has now been unleashed on an unsuspecting public and I'm very much looking forward to seeing it. The film is a lo-fi, continuous single shot taken from Lenin's point-of-view as people compete for his attention whilst he attempts to eat his midday meal.

The script was by Penny Dimond and was filmed in collaboration with Agnes Hay. It was shot in a lovely garden in North London. Most of us were wrapped up in Winter coats and scarves on an absolutely beautiful Summer's day. Gary Merry, who directed and played Lenin, had this to say on his blog about the filming.

As well as Gary and Penny, the cast includes the supremely talented Ann Firbank, David McGillivray, Anthony Best, Eva-Mary Carroll and Kathryn Hamilton-Hall among others. It's people like these that keep me coming back to work for the New Factory time and time again.

Kathryn and I played a pair of Dadaists. We had a ball.

All the photographs here were taken by Daisy Wormell. Here's one which shows off my lipstick.

I'll post the film itself here once I've managed to see it myself.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Dredd Alert

I'm a big fan of all things 2000 AD and Judge Dredd. I used to read 2000 AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine regularly until a period in my life when funds were not in abundance. It was a period that went on long enough that when I eventually came back to them I'd lost track of what was going on. I had become a lapsed reader.

I recently got back into the comic strips through the graphic novels and it's been an interesting experience rediscovering something I knew, but from a period before I knew it. Does that make sense?

I've started another blog called Dredd Alert.

The idea is to start at the beginning and work my way through writing about a Dredd-verse strip every day. I've posted a half a dozen so far and I'm still enjoying it.

Friday, 4 January 2013

A Carruthers Conclusion

At the end of last year (or a few days ago depending on a point of view), I posted a potentially final entry on the Carruthers Blog.

It's unfortunate, but there has been little to write about for a long time. If the situation changes I'll be certain to let you know.

There are still a number of Carruthers-related things I plan to write about here.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

New Year's Dave

A Happy New Year to you all.

Sarah and I spent Christmas Day itself separately and out of necessity Christmas has become a moveable feast for us. We celebrated yesterday instead: stockings, food, presents, crackers, paper hats and John Carpenter's The Thing. We had a lovely time.

So as well as New Year's Day, today is technically our Boxing Day as well.

A Happy New Year and a Happy Boxing Day to you all.