It’s something of a cliché that the records you love when you are fifteen get into your bloodstream. I think this is true. I can’ t stop loving the records I loved then.
But in my case the deeper, more important discovery came a little later, when the history of black American music began to open out for me like a rose.
When I was twenty I was in a play with an actor who happened to have a cassette of Ray Charles’ greatest hits. These were mainly the hits of the early to mid sixties. I can no longer remember the actor’s name and I don’t suppose he is still finding acting work. But I owe him a great deal because hearing that cassette was life-changing for me. I played it over and over during the run of the play. I found a second-hand vinyl version soon after and then began to acquire as many of Ray Charles’ full albums as I could lay my mitts on. Some of these were collector’s items which made them costly, but they were well worth it. About the time chaps like Nicholas Pegg were perhaps beginning to sniff out Bowie rarities, I was much, much more interested in Ray.
I certainly knew the name of Ray Charles before encountering that cassette and must have heard in passing some of his hit records but I had never listened attentively. He was nicknamed, first by Frank Sinatra and then be everybody, ‘the genius’, a term he rejected, preferring to be known as ‘Brother Ray’, and anyway I have never found the word ‘genius’ very useful. But Ray Charles was unarguably a gigantic talent and for me incomparably important, both for his own work and the other work he revealed to me. Would I have discovered Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker and Art Tatum and Robert Johnson and Dinah Washington and Tampa Red without him? I suppose so, but the journey would have been different.
Ray Charles has always been there for me. Even during periods of not playing his records he has felt like a presence. After he played a free live concert on New Haven Green, perhaps the tenth time I saw him live, (25,000 people turned up,) I had a chance to buy one of the New Haven Register photographer’s pictures from the show. Ever since, it has been on the wall wherever we happen to be living, so I see him pretty much every day, head up, back arched, mouth wide, hands on the keyboard, light catching his glasses. Having recently dug out my vinyl collection after some years in storage I have been listening to him in large quantities again. He still packs one hell of a punch. He still seems like a very great popular singer.
He was uniquely able to straddle all the forms of American popular music. He was a deeply intense blues vocalist and pianist, both earthy and elegant, and blues would always be at the heart of his expression. He was a soulful jazz pianist too, perfectly at ease with major jazz musicians. Among his massive recorded output are a number of instrumental albums in both big band and small group formats, including two sublime albums with the vibraphonist Milt Jackson.
He was a decent sax player. He was a sublime balladeer, always immersed in the sense of a song even when his reading was radically unusual. Early in his career he was in thrall to Nat Cole who, before becoming the graceful crooner he is now remembered as, was a major jazz pianist whose ‘King Cole trio’ had a vastly influential drumless line-up of piano/voice, bass and guitar. On Ray’s very earliest records, aged about twenty, he was essentially impersonating Cole, and later on, long after he found his own, much grittier style he would still occasionally show Cole’s warmth and smoothness.
Possibly Ray’s most significant lasting influence was the adapting of gospel songs to secular concerns when he signed to Atlantic records in 1952. This was controversial at the time. An early record, This Little Girl of Mine, is This Little Light of Mine taken out of the church. I’ve Got a Woman and the towering call-and-response two-sided single What I Say, still breathtakingly raw and exciting, are also secular variants of gospel. These records are the foundation of soul music. Without them, no Aretha Franklin, no Otis Redding, no James Brown.
He was credited with inventing rock ‘n’ roll too. He rejected this accolade, saying it should go to Chuck Berry. His own music, he argued, was too ‘down’, too emotionally complex, too adult. I think he was right.
In the early sixties he caused a storm by recording country and western songs. This had something of the effect on purists of Bob Dylan plugging in. Ray Charles pointed out that during his impoverished boyhood in Florida country songs had always been in the mix of the music he heard. There was a poll of major country singers a few years ago, asking them to choose the most important figure in the history of their music and Ray Charles won, because, they said, he made the music cool, he brought it to listeners who would never have paid it any attention. In fact, the two early sixties albums of ‘Modern Sounds in Country and Western’ are not country records per se. They’re country songs reworked into pop, jazz, big bands and so forth, sometimes with backing by his soulful four woman group the Raelettes, sometimes by large choirs. (It must be said that the choirs and the string arrangements, sometimes a bit stiff, have dated, but Ray’s vocals remain as fresh as ever.)
It is worth emphasising how astonishing this move into country was: a man comfortable taking the piano chair of the Count Basie orchestra, a man able to play deep jazz including a stunning album of duets with Betty Carter, the greatest and most uncompromising jazz singer of her generation, also recording songs by Buck Owens and Hank Williams! And the country records work because he treats them seriously: he interprets Buck Owens with the same thoughtfulness he gives to Gershwin. Most of the country songs I know, I know through Ray Charles. Recently I found myself humming ‘Take me Home, Country Roads’ and a friend rather brutally expressed surprise at my liking John Denver. I told her that I was not humming the John Denver version but the Ray Charles version and this, of course, made it okay. If at a convention or somewhere a person should hear me humming something they regard as blah, they can safely assume it is the Ray Charles version and so not blah at all.
In the early eighties he took a further step into country music, signing with CBS and for the first time working with traditional country instrumentation, fiddles and steel guitars and the like. He dueted with Johnny Cash. (So did Bob Dylan.) These were the first ‘new’ Ray Charles albums I bought and I am still fond of them. He still reads lyrics like an actor. Around this time he did a Christmas album. It is standard for American singers when they become safe to do one of these. What’s amazing about Ray’s is how good it is. Side one especially, with a big band version of ‘What Child is This?’, (the tune being ‘Greensleeves’,) the saddest and most haunting version of The Little Drummer Boy’ imaginable and a cool, funny reading of ‘Rudolph the Red- Nosed Reindeer’.
For jazz musicians and torch singers, the Beatles created a huge problem. Sinatra, though a great musician, struggled with the changes in fashion and his sixties output is pretty patchy. Some jazz musicians tried to do Beatles albums with unhappy results. Thelonious Monk refused to do one and that brought his contract with CBS to an end. (There is a credible story that a jerk at CBS sent someone round to play through a few Beatles tunes because he thought Monk could not read music.) There’s an album called ‘Basie’s Beatle Bag’ which you need not bother with and as late as 1980 one of the greatest vocalists in jazz produced ‘Sarah Vaughan sings Songs of the Beatles’, which is cheesier than a plate of stinking bishop. Even Al Green can’t make ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ work. For Ray Charles the problem seems not to have existed. To him, ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Let it Be’ and ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Something’ were, like everything else, raw material for his own musical language. (‘Eleanor Rigby’ and ‘Yesterday’ are taken at a lick.) There’s a glorious and moving late recording of ‘Imagine’.
Ray Charles Robinson (as he was named) lost his sight at the age of seven, so though he never saw a city or a television programme he did see the dusty Florida country where he spent his early years. Perhaps because he had experienced sight his music is full of references to it. Of course if you sing hundreds of songs some of them will be about things seen but it’s poignant how often seeing is a theme – songs like ‘Light out of Darkness’ and a joyful, definitive ‘I Can See Clearly Now,’ and even an album title, ‘Through the Eyes of Love’, (a fantastic, forgotten record) the cover image of which is a shot of his dark glasses.
He always regarded his music as commercial but he never released material he did not believe in. Everybody who knew him describes him as a perfectionist. He was an astute businessman. When he left Atlantic Records for ABC in 1959, he negotiated a deal which gave him the masters. This was unheard of at the time. But a poorly worded will has left much of this music in limbo since his death in 2004. The first ten years or so of his recorded career are comprehensively represented on CD: There’s a good set of the early pre-Atlantic recordings and a superb one of the Atlantic material, neither of these owned by Ray Charles Enterprises. Beyond that it’s a mess. A good half of his recorded output has never appeared on CD. An excellent five disc set of his complete ABC singles was deleted after a couple of months owing to a rights issue. Put this into perspective. Every note Sinatra recorded is available in a number of well annotated boxed sets covering the complete output of particular labels. A few years ago Columbia released a 70 CD set covering the whole of Tony Bennet’s oeuvre. Every album BB King ever made is available. I suppose Ray’s Atlantic material and the big ABC hits amount to the best of his output (they are essential for anyone with an interest in American music) but his later work is finer than Sinatra’s; he produced diamonds throughout his career and too many of them are, for the time being, lost.
After 9/11, his great version of ‘America the Beautiful’ became a kind of national theme song. You heard it all over the place. And it remains a key record. After the ball drops in Times Square every New Year’s midnight, three songs are played: Sinatra’s ‘New York, New York’, Louis Armstrong’s ‘Wonderful World’ and Ray’s’ America the Beautiful’. If there are Americans who do not know his name, there are almost none who have not heard his voice.
The first time I visited America was as a guest at the grandiose twentieth anniversary Doctor Who convention in Chicago in 1983. One of my vague hopes on accepting this invitation was that I might get to visit the nearby town of Waukegan, Illinois, where the writer Ray Bradbury spent his childhood and which was fictionalized as Greentown in his novels ‘Dandelion Wine’ and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. Needless to say no such visit came about. Someone told me that in fact Bradbury’s Waukegan no longer existed, the modern town being just another suburb with a highway and a McDonalds. Ah well.
At that time I was very, very, very into Ray Bradbury’s work, and had been for several years. I first came to him at about fifteen, which is the perfect age to make his acquaintance if you happen to be a dreamy and impractical lad with somewhat gothic propensities. And if you take to him you will vacuum up his work in great quantities: you never meet a person who has read only one of his books. He is likely to be a lastingly important writer for his readers in one key respect: he is often the first writer they fall in love with not only for his characters or settings or ideas but for his voice: everyone who loves him loves him for the way he writes. This is a transition from the bald narrative of popular escapism to something subtler, more suggestive, more magical, more imagistic, more – I hesitate to use the word – more literary. It is not only the meat of the stories, it is (as the old comedian puts it) the way he tells them. If when you were a kid your parents grumbled that you only read rubbish, you would give them Bradbury to demonstrate that science fiction writers could really write.
And I liked ‘the way he told them’ so much I read everything I could get my hands on. The major works of the fifties. ‘The Martian Chronicles’, ‘Dandelion Wine’, ‘The Small Assassin’. Oh, ‘Fahrenheit 451’ of course. The then newish books too: ‘The Halloween Tree’, ‘The Machineries of Joy’, ‘Long After Midnight’.
And, perhaps with the greatest pleasure of all, his most personal work, ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’, the unique novel of a small town visited at dead of night by a ghostly carnival, ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’:
“First of all it was October, a rare month for boys… And if it’s around October twentieth and everything smoky-smelling and the sky orange and ash gray at twilight, it seems Halloween will never come in a fall of broomsticks and a soft flap of bedsheets around corners.
“But one strange wild dark long year, Halloween came early…”
At the heart of the novel are two thirteen-year old boys, “touching towards fourteen,” Will Halloway and Jim Nightshade, but Will is still a child and Jim is reaching for adulthood, women, sex. Will knows that when this happens he will lose Jim, fears he is already beginning to do so.
Into the lives of these children and into the lives of all the town comes a weird carnival, appearing by train out of the blue late at night, and magically building itself in the meadow outside town without human help. Late October is beyond the usual season for carnivals, which come in summer, but this one brings ‘the Autumn people’, freaks and witches and a magical carousel which, run backwards, can make old women young again and, run forwards, will make children of thirteen older…
For British children, the carnivals which so fired Bradbury’s imagination were foreign and exotic and spooky. The Carnival of Monsters notwithstanding, we had no such thing. By the time I was reading about them, Americans probably didn’t either but I could not be sure. We had fairs, where we ate candy floss and rode bumper cars and went on roundabouts. We had circuses, where clowns in long shoes and make-up threw pies at each other and acrobats leapt from rope ladder to rope ladder high up near the roof of the tent. There were even lion tamers. At seaside towns there were piers with roller coasters and fortune tellers in gypsy caravans. But a carnival, with its freaks and its mirror maze and Mr Electrico and its Illustrated Man was, to us, much more bizarre and suggestive. ‘Cooger and Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show’: Bloody hell, that sounds cool. No one would bother sliding down ivy to go to a fair, but the idea of climbing out your bedroom window and shucking down ivy to sneak off to a carnival savours of adventure.
‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ is a book to which I have returned many times, picking it up again every few years. I have read it in different frames of mind. I have read it day by day, one chapter at a time, lingering over paragraphs. I have read all fifty-five brief chapters in a day. I read it first as a story of the supernatural, I have read it as a metaphor of the pleasure/terror boys have on the cusp of puberty and adulthood. I have read it as a fable of frustrated lives in small towns, of the inability of different generations to understand each other, alternately of the possibility that they might. I have read it as a fable of the fear of death and also of acceptance of it.
The first time I read it I loved and believed every poetic word, every evocative sentence. It gave me the illusion that all my senses were operating. When there is a ghostly whisper, you the reader hear the whisper, you smell the bonfire smoke, you see the garish carousel horses.it is this quality of sensual conjuring I admire most in fiction and towards which I aim in my own writing. If you spoke Bradbury’s phrases aloud they sounded great, even felt great as you shaped them.
I do not think in all my many revisits to the book that I have ever failed to enjoy it but I did begin to wonder whether it was overwrought, whether it would have been even better if more stylistically disciplined. I have just read it again after ten years – the longest gap I’ve had between rereadings – and I see I was wrong about this. ‘Something Wicked’ has a sort of idiosyncratic perfection because its imperfections are so much a part of its fabric and texture that, without them, not only would it be a completely different book, it would be a smaller one, a more ordinary one. Bradbury is so intoxicated by his own word drunkenness that the reader is intoxicated too. It makes the book feel monumental. It is in the manner of the writing that much of the energy, the madness, the shadowiness, come. Call it poetic if you want, call it purple if you want. If you are open to it, it works. It is by encasing him in such whirligig prose that Mr. Dark, The Illustrated Man, becomes such a convincing embodiment of Autumn and evil and death.
In 1983 a film version appeared. This had been a long time coming. ‘Something Wicked’ has its origins in a short story of the 40s called ‘The Black Ferris’ but it really came to life in the fifties as a film treatment for Gene Kelly. Kelly was unable to raise money to make it, which is why Bradbury turned it into a novel. But he continued to tinker with a film version: he produced a screenplay in the mid 1970s. It finally got made when Disney, trying in the early eighties to break into grown-up films, decided this dark fantasy would do the trick.
The making of it was by all accounts chaos. The director Jack Clayton, under pressure from Disney, hired John ‘Rumpole’ Mortimer to do a rewrite job on Bradbury’s script and this didn’t sit well with Bradbury. After some bad previews major re-editing occurred, the cutting of whole scenes and the shooting of new ones, and the scrapping of the entire original score by Georges Delerue, a new, more straightforward score – at Bradbury’s instigation, apparently – being commissioned from James Horner. The impression I have is that Jack Clayton had produced an art house film with Disney money and there were pretty desperate attempts to turn it into something Multiplex cinema goers could cope with. They didn’t achieve this: the existing work is a very odd piece of cinema indeed. Hollywood is all about cookie cutter material: see what is making money and reproduce it over and over again. It is very rare for a visitor to a Hollywood film to say they’ve never seen anything like it before because they have, countless times. Of ‘Something Wicked’ it can truly be said, you’ve never seen anything like it. It got pretty tepid, sometimes hostile reviews. Not every critic got it wrong: I remember a guy on radio Four’s arts programme Kaleidoscope being tremendously enthusiastic and expressing his hope that it would not get lost. But it withered at the box office. (Recently, a brilliant, literate film rendering of one of Bradbury’s childhood heroes, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, died a similarly unjust critical and commercial death. Summer audiences sat through The Avengers instead, which was silly of them. Ironically John Carter was also a Disney production.)
Me, I loved Clayton’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’. If I was the kind of person who makes lists I’m sure it would be in my top ten favourite movies. I saw it eight or ten times during the few weeks it was in cinemas.
For me, it captures, not all the narrative details of course, but the essence of the book beautifully. A number of changes are made. The Dust Witch, in the novel an old hag of the classic type, in the film is a beautiful if creepy woman in black. The key scene in the novel where the witch in a wicker balloon basket flies over Jim’s house to mark it so it can be located by Mr. Dark is replaced by a more orthodox but effective nightmare sequence featuring two hundred tarantulas. The ending is quite different and, it must be said, much simplified and less interesting, but climactically effective in movie terms.
But I am not the kind of audience member who gets into a stew about faithfulness to the source. No adaptation can be merely a reworking into another medium of the object it is adapted from. It must be a new piece, it must stand as a work of art in its own right, and to my mind ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ does. One of the challenges of a story where the central characters are children is that, on film, it is likely to become an entertainment for children, which is a very different thing. Anybody who has seen any of the numerous movie versions of ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ knows this. Jack Clayton had already avoided this pitfall with his version of Henry James’ ‘The Turn of the Screw’, and there’s nothing in ‘Something Wicked’ of the children’s film. I’m sure a twelve year old could enjoy it but it doesn’t condescend to him.
Its rhythms are unusual. It manages to be simultaneously leisurely and tight, coming in at hardly more than ninety minutes, packed with incident and yet with the contours of dream as much as of adventure. Its reliance on atmospherics and suggestion – an empty town square, papers caught by the wind – at a time when horror and gothic films were becoming increasingly graphic succeeds because it actually is so bracingly atmospheric. It damn near achieves a visual equivalent of Bradbury’s prose style.
It has the quietness one imagines of small town American life of the thirties with its undercurrents of frustration and darkness, about which the film is unflinching. It is straight-forward about Jim’s yearning for adulthood, his curiosity about sex, his desire for it and fear of it.
The film is sublimely well played. Jonathan Pryce as Mr. Dark is brilliant, chilling and alien and haunting, his tremulous voice with its undercurrent of threat stranger still for its eerie, elegant classical intonation. Mr. Dark’s repellant vividity comes partly from the odd gentleness of Jonathan Pryce’s reading. Jason Robards is terrific as Will’s unhappy father, mildly depressed, prematurely aged, passing his time alone in the library. Shawn Carson and Vidal Peterson as the boys Jim Nightshade and Will Halloway are absolutely real kids.
There are stunning set pieces throughout: the opening sequence of the empty, driverless train whistling through the night, the discovery by the seller of lightning rods of the Dust Witch in a coffin of ice in a closed down store. The eerie parade of the carnival through the town, searching out the two hiding children. Mr. Dark and the witch stalking the children through the town library at three in the morning, the time more people die than any other, their black magic slowing Mr Halloway’s heart to near death. The shallowness of the towns folk’s apparent contentment, the ex-ball player barman, the aging school teacher, the greedy owner of the cigar store, and their pockets of obsession: women, money, youth, beauty, eventually paying the price of their come true dreams.
Just as there is no book quite like the novel, there is no other film quite like this.
I must say, though, that I wish it was possible to see the film Jack Clayton originally made, not to substitute it for this film, which I love, but as an alternative. We are not talking here of the cynical ‘director’s cut’, bonus scenes, the detritus of DVD extras. We are talking about a different, completed film. I wonder if the vast amount of cut footage still exists? At the moment there is no evidence of sufficient interest in the piece to warrant such a reconstruction, but one pleasing recent development is the release on CD of Delerue’s abandoned film score, which it turns out is magnificent, darker, more complex, more intense, less Hollywood.
It’s common for writers of fantasy fiction to do their best work when comparatively young, and after the fifties masterpieces and 1962’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ Bradbury had essentially said what he had to say. Being the outstanding professional writer that he was, he continued to produce books regularly for 40 years, many of them beautiful, pleasurable, memorable, but they veer sometimes into a depressing American sugariness. One of his earliest and best story collections was titled, after a line of Yeats, ‘The Golden Apples of the Sun,’ and it is hard not to feel sympathy for the writer who described his late collection ‘The Toynbee Convector’ as ‘The Golden Delicious Apples of the Sun.’ Also, he took a sideways step into poetry. I can’t decide whether I think this was brave of him or foolish, but it wasn’t his natural mode of expression.
Young, imaginative readers will I’m certain continue to be enthralled by the books of the fifties, but will probably not in big numbers gobble up the detective novels of the eighties, ‘Death is a Lonely Business’ and ‘A Graveyard for Lunatics’, much as I like them. Bradbury spent a good part of the eighties and early nineties adapting 65 of his stories into TV plays for a series on HBO called ‘The Ray Bradbury Theatre’. The entire run is easily found on DVD, and it’s variable but well worth seeing, not least for the utterly breathtaking performance by Mary Morris in ‘There Was an Old Woman.’ In the last decade or so of his life a kind of stocktaking took place, perfectly reasonable for an aging writer of Ray Bradbury’s quality, whereby small presses produced incredibly expensive, luxurious limited editions, leather-bound and tray-cased, pleasing to look at but sometimes consisting of barrel-scrapings.
But none of this matters, because, if you are the right reader, once Bradbury has captured your imagination his distinctive and intense vision will never quite leave it. Even if you have not opened his books for many years, or you have opened them again and found them purpler than suits your taste, he will, at odd moments, cross your mind. Maybe just because it’s a windy October day, because you hear some calliope music in the distance or you see boys swimming in a lake, or you see an old-fashioned barber shop pole.
Or a Jack o’Lantern will do it. I make good Jack o’Lanterns and I always think of Bradbury while carving.
Or maybe there’s a reference to Mars on the news.
Any of these can bring this marvelous writer back to you.
A poem from 1979 which, in its second half, seems even more to the point today. The poet spent much of his life in France and knew Paris well. He was one of the few English writers to be made a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
A soldier at Mountbatten’s funeral
To the interviewer from the BBC:
“I don’t care what the poets will say,
Our fine old motto’s good enough for me…….”
He’s right, of course, I know he is.
“We loved him,” said the Romsey paper’s editor,
“But what does a word like love mean nowadays?”
“Words, words, words”: Impatience or despair?
Mere wornout husks, devalued coinage, “Strain
Crack and Sometimes Break….”
“What can one say?” asks everyone.
Some withered wreaths: Imperishable memories?
Such is our ever-increasing impotence
In this our more and more blood-reeking world.
Is silence therefore really best?
Even a poet can no longer say.
The organizer of Doctor Who events in Derby, Stephen Hatcher, is a teacher of foreign languages and I moaned to him about my inability to speak and read French well. Some of my favourite writers are French – Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Proust, Cocteau, Genet – and I prefer French mystery writers like Simenon and Leo Malet to English, but I can’t read them in the original. I said a sentence or two to Stephen – “Avez vous un chambre avec salle de bain?” and he praised my accent. I am sure my accent is okay. In Italy I once spoke a few sentences to a Venetian tour guide, who embarked on a long discourse in her native language, assuming I was fluent, though I had used up all my knowledge.
I have been going through papers at my late father’s house, hundreds of them across all periods of my life, and a few days after speaking to Stephen Hatcher I came across a stab at a French essay, written when I was thirteen or so, which I reproduce below. The words and fragments in brackets were struck out in the original.
1. A Memorable event
Tom Baker est un tres bien acteur, et il travaillé en le series “Docteur Qui”. Aussi, ma tante travaille pour le BBC. (Elle in in) Elle m’invité á (la) les studios rencontre Tom.
(J’arri J’ai) Je suis arrive á (six) trois heur et demi. Tom et ma tante (m) ont me vu. (Je) (Je suis) (je suis) (allé va) J’ai été aller autour les (studious) studios de “Docteur Qui”. Le seriés “Softly Softly” (é) (as) (été) (fai) est aussi être fais dans les studio(u)s.
Il était neuf heures et demi quand nous (avons) sommes allé (de) (de) d’apres les studios. Le train (je suis) j’ai été prise le train me prendre à (la) ma ville.
2. Future Plans
je desire étre un actuer dans la future. Il est tres difficule representer, pace que (le) la competition est ne petit pas. Mais, filles ont tres beaucoup plus commun que garcons.
Il y a un tres grand montant (de) d’acteurs (qui) de (nemoi) renommée pas, mais un sombre vie.
Mon frère est un acteur, et il est (sur le) sans travaille. Mais il était employé pour trois (mon) mois à noel. Il est tres heureux. Pour les raisons (j’ai) je mentionné, je desire être un acteur en (pour) ma (p) vie.
3. Hobbies and pastimes
Dans (man) ma passtemps, j’aimé ecrire et aussi j’aimé dessin. Je tire des magazines, et (je) j’ecrire histories en (sujets) beaucoup sujets. Pour example, j’ai criété le “Robo-Man” et les ennemies, “Crusher,” “Collosus,” (“Blackburn Morbius”) “Phantom” nommer mais trois de la varieté des ennemies.
Aussi, j’aime representér dans (man) ma passtemps. Bientot, j’ai faire “The Browning Version.”
Je rais à les classes de drame, et, pour les examines, (je) j’obteni les distinctions.
Ten out of ten, Stephen?
It is true I had an Aunt who worked at the BBC but the meeting with that ‘bien acteur’ is fictional. My older brother really was an actor for a while. I did create a superhero called Roboman. He looked a bit like Spiderman but robotic. I only ever designed a single cover and wrote half a story before becoming bored with him. I have no clue what I meant by ‘Blackburn Morbius’ but he/she/it sounds kind of interesting.
I was indeed in an am-dram production of Rattigan’s “The Browning Version.”
Once during practice for oral French my teacher asked me what my favourite TV programme was and I said Docteur Qui. She then asked me to describe it. Docteur Qui is difficult enough to explain in English and I’m afraid my sparse French didn’t suffice. She suggested if asked this question during the exam I should tell a white lie and pick something simpler. I chose Roobarb and Custard, a cartoon about a chat et un chien, which seemed more straightforward, but it didn’t help because I failed oral French anyway.
The return to public consciousness of the Doctor Who novelisations, which were originally published by Target books in the 1970s and ‘80s, has come as a surprise to me, but return they have, both as paperback reprints and as a series of audiobooks.
On the face of it, the availability on DVD of most of the programmes from which these books were drawn would appear to make them redundant. If it had been possible to record episodes off the TV in 1963 I don’t suppose they would have come into being. But for those of us who grew up in the seventies, the regular appearance of these was, apart from the twenty-five minutes a week watching the programme, one of the two big thrills in the life of a Doctor Who enthusiast, the other being, of course, the gorgeous weekly comic strip, which ran, virtually unbroken, for over 700 weeks. Even when Doctor Who was off the telly, there was a new installment of the comic serial to look forward to on a Saturday morning, and a new Target book every month. Target books and TV Comic: they were the cornerstones.
The Target books were perfectly decent children’s books. No doubt parents would have preferred their young ‘uns to read Robert Louis Stevenson or Anne of Avonlea, but there we are. Kiddies don’t choose what their parents want them to choose. (Actually, I’m not sure than Anne of Avonlea is all that great.) For large numbers the favoured reading was Enid Blyton, though Blyton was, to me, maddeningly dull. More gripping, possibly, though I have never read them, were the books by Ruby Ferguson about a girl called Jill and her pony. I knew a guy who read the Jill books to his boyfriend in bed, a chapter a night. Eventually they broke up, but not until they’d reached the end of the ninth and final book. Apparently Ruby Ferguson would in each new book plug the earlier ones. (“You will remember how in Jill’s Gymkhana…”) Jill books may seem a tad girly, but remember that many of those punkish kids who bought 2000AD also secretly read their sister’s copy of Misty. Anyway, there were laddish choices available, like Biggles books and Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators. I never read these either, though a boy at school was heavily into The Three Investigators and always had one of the series in his satchel.
If you were a science fiction kind of child, the Target Books were more likely to be your thing than the Jill books, or even Biggles. A whirligig of colour and invention and all-round splendour. Lovely cover art. Until I was cast in the series, I read every one of them. They still have real charm. So I was extremely pleased when Michael Stevens at Audiogo asked if I would like to read one. Well, of course I bloody would!
At first I was a tiny bit disappointed that I was not asked to read a book by Terrance Dicks. Terrance was the ultimate Doctor Who noveliser. (Is that a word?) He wrote, I should think, two thirds of them. His adaptations were always elegantly, crisply done. I would still like to record one, just because he is who he is, but I don’t imagine he would ever listen to it. He told me that he has piles and piles of Doctor Who audiobooks and never gets around to playing any of them. Terrance is a big fan of pot noodles and eats one every evening and I would have thought this was the perfect time for a chapter of a Who audio, but no doubt he has other priorities.
Disappointment evaporated swiftly when I took a look at the volume in question, which was The Visitation, by Eric Saward, adapted from his own serial. I worked from a photocopy of a secondhand paperback, with 50p penciled on the corner of the first page.
I had The Visitation in my hands at least a week before I was due to turn up at the studio, so I was able to live with it for a while, read it maybe half a dozen times, try out voices and varieties of pace. Everyone knows that The Visitation serial is a Doctor Who gem. The book is a gem too. I’m told that Eric Saward doesn’t like it much, feeling he wrote it too fast. Maybe he did. He was a full-time script editor and I imagine the novel was turned it out in snatched hours. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed both privately reading it,( the first time I had read a Target book since I was eighteen years old,) and then recording it. It is tremendously atmospheric and pictorially evocative.
I can see that from a certain ‘fannish’ angle the most interesting adaptations are those written by the original scriptwriter which expand and augment his script. Coming from the horse’s mouth such additions have the whiff of authenticity. The terrific opening chapter, the arrival of the android and the slaughter of the family, is written in part from the POV of animals. I remember particularly a fox. This is quite risky but it works. The novel departs from the serial in one major respect: the character of the actor/highwayman Richard Mace is a long way from the excellent Michael Robbins, who played him on TV. I suppose the novel brings the character closer to Eric’s original intent. Physically, he is repeatedly described as ‘portly,’ which doesn’t create a picture of Michael Robbins, who wasn’t.
Off to the Audiogo studios in Bath, The Visitation with notes scrawled all over it in my bag. Just me and a lovely woman the other side of the studio glass. Audiogo booked me for two days. We started at ten thirty on the first day and finished at three thirty. Allowing for coffee breaks, when I sipped Nescafe from a Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion mug, and a lunch break, we recorded the entire three and a half hour piece in about four hours of intense, exhilarating studio time. This is not remarkable. Most Doctor Who audio novels are polished off in a day. But, like every actor, I wanted a second go. I suggested we record the whole thing again the next day, thus having two takes to choose from. I was told this would be a complete waste of time. So I spent the second day pottering around Bath.
I was asked a year or so after this recording if I would like to do the audio of Full Circle by Andrew Smith, the first story my character appeared in. Yes, I said, I would very much like to.
Andrew Smith’s TV script was produced when he was only eighteen years old. This is absurdly young. But the commission to do the novelization must have been even scarier for him. A TV programme has input from loads of people, a novel is much more exposed. There are thousands of bookish teenagers turning out novels, but the chances of these ever seeing the light of day are slim. Andrew was pretty much guaranteed a published novel at the age of twenty, before he had written a word.
There are countless examples of early publications subsequently regretted. Graham Greene, for instance, had a little book of poems published while at university called Babbling April. Later, he tried to buy up and destroy every copy. A few escaped him and you can obtain this rare book nowadays for five thousand pounds. Greene also suppressed two early novels. The great surrealist poet David Gascoyne had a slim volume published at eighteen. His mother told him he would regret it, and soon he did. For years he denied that the book existed.
SF Writers do seem to start unusually young, at roughly the same age as SF readers, which is early to mid-teens. There’s no evidence that they’re later embarrassed by these youthful efforts. I was perhaps fifteen when I first read Michael Moorcock, who was both a professionally published writer and an editor when only a couple of years older. Harlan Ellison’s earliest published stories appeared in a newspaper when he was seventeen. Isaac Asimov’s stories were appearing in Astounding at nineteen and his most famous work, the Foundation trilogy, was underway soon after. All these writers have merrily allowed their teenage work to be reprinted, though they often add introductions warning of its gaucheness.
It was a real treat to find that the novelisation of Full Circle is terrific fun. Even now, it is what Christopher Bidmead would call ‘a ripping good read’. I know the serial version less well than I know The Visitation. I have seen The Visitation several times over the years. The production of Full Circle was such misery that, between its first broadcast and the DVD audio commentary, I had never seen it at all, though when I did see it for the commentary I found I liked it.
Even more than Eric, Andrew used the novel as an opportunity to expand his script and move closer to his original intention. The cover is graced with a super painting of a rubbery marshman straight from the TV, but in the novel the marshmen feel somewhat different, less like ‘Creatures from the Black Lagoon’. There is a thrilling opening chapter, absent from TV, in which the Starliner crashes on Alzarius. There is an acute sense of the dreadful machinations of small town politics which make the Starliner such an intolerable place to be. The ruler and his oily lackey are not far from reality. This seems particularly striking when you remember that Andrew Smith later became a senior policeman and worked occasionally on the edges of the political world. I wonder if he was sometimes reminded of his Full Circle characters?
Near the end there is a melancholy telepathic ‘speech’ from one marshman to the others, which is moving. There is also a sort of ‘folk rhyme,’ which, adventurously, is presented in its entirety as a prologue and then quoted throughout by assorted characters.
After reading it, I was dying to get back to Bath.
It looked less likely that Full Circle, which is thousands of words longer than The Visitation, could be recorded in a single day, but it was, just. My last gasp was uttered at twenty-five past five. Then I went, exhausted, to an attractively historic pub, and spent the evening with large chunks of Andrew’s book bouncing around my head. I dreamed of it that night.
Actors are show-offs, and one of the reasons I like doing audiobooks, as most of us do, is that they demand a large portion of what passes as one’s range, vocally at least. In the context of Doctor Who, not widely known for virtuosity, the audiobooks are the nearest probably anyone, and certainly a companion, can get to doing quite stretching work. So why not go for it? And the two novels I have read do make real demands. The Visitation bounces from a sitcom highwayman to a genocidal alien maniac. It’s like playing Betty White and Adolph Hitler in the same piece. Full Circle goes from a bunch of outsider children to wily political operators. There’s a kind-hearted old bloke who dies horribly. There are big action scenes. There are even scenes of family tension, a rare tone for Doctor Who.
And then there is the Doctor.
Probably the most madly pleasurable aspect, though not the most challenging, is getting to play the Doctor. It is a delightful fact that many Doctor Who companions can capture their Doctors uncannily well. Katy Manning’s Jon Pertwee is world-famous and Frazer Hines does a fabulous Patrick Troughton. This is not ’impersonation’ in the way of a TV impressionist. Certainly not from me it isn’t. It’s more a matter of a manner, a rhythm of speech, a way of inflecting. Having a go at the Fifth and then the Fourth Doctor, and being paid pretty well for it, is a very good gig.
Audiogo has ceased to exist and the Target books are now being recorded elsewhere, but they continue to come out. An actor who was at Audiogo to read an entirely different kind of book described Doctor Who to me as ‘the gift that keeps on giving,’ and for its actors this is certainly true. Talking to Geoffrey Beevers last year, we agreed that reading an audio book is the single most enjoyable job an actor can be asked to do.
In the lounge at a friend’s flat I saw two massive floor-to-ceiling bookcases, separated by a chimney. The left hand bookcase contained every single Star Trek novel ever written and the right hand bookcase contained every single Doctor Who novel ever written. This was twenty years ago so I suppose he has had to buy new bookcases since. I whispered to Paul Cornell that this was the worst library I had ever laid eyes on and Paul laughed like anything, though a couple of his books were in the right-hand bookcase.
If you type ‘Star Trek’ into the books section of Amazon US, over 21,000 titles come up, a lot of them fiction. Even allowing that many of these are different printings of the same book, the quantity of Star Trek novels must have crawled well into four figures. Has anyone got through them all? It’s possible. I guess many Star Trek readers read Star Trek novels exclusively. This is not unique to Star Trek readers. There are lots of readers of ‘cozy mysteries’, in which little old ladies solve murders in villages, who only ever read cozy mysteries but read an awful lot of them. There are romance readers who read only Harlequins but get through a hundred and fifty in a year.
I should say at once that I have no opinion about these Star Trek novels, having never read any. I am fully prepared to believe that I would enjoy the Doctor Who ones and as a number of them have been written by friends and acquaintances I hope I would.
As I said last time, if you have ever read a TV novel you cannot afford to be snobbish. Still…
Another friend, recently visiting her father in Maine, decided to clear out her teenage bedroom, and came back to Connecticut with several boxes of books to give away. Most of these were steamy historical romances of a kind for which there is a huge market, ‘civilIzed’ women in past times having passionate affairs with ‘outsider’ men, Apaches, Highlanders, who are rugged and randy and yet startlingly gentle, though like Mr Rochester they must be physically damaged near the end to be tame enough for marriage vows. But there were four Star Trek novels too. I flicked one open, and this was the first sentence I saw:
Uhura blinked her eyes.
Bloody hell! Uhura blinked her eyes?? Well, she didn’t blink her ear lobes, did she? Or her nipples? The sentence should obviously have been:
And even if extra words were needed, though they aren’t, the sentence should have been:
Uhura blinked her eyelids!
Because eyes cannot blink, any more than ear lobes or nipples!
That a professional writer wrote this and a professional editor let it go seemed to me depressing. Uhura blinked her eyes. Dear me. And I should add that this book appeared not as a paperback original but as an expensive hardcover.
I have mentioned this sentence once or twice to people and have been surprised to find they are less horrified then I am. I wouldn’t even have noticed that, said one. I don’t think it’s that bad, said another.
I think my objection is that it is not interestingly bad. There is no leap of imagination. It is not reaching for anything. It is not writing at all, it is typing. I was tweeted about a Dallas novel where oil is described as black semen. That is very very very (ad infinitum) bad indeed but there is at least a thought in it, an image in it. Yes, a very very (ad infinitum) bad and unsuccessful and rather embarrassing one, but a thought.
Uhura blinked her eyes.
Say it aloud. It refuses to lift off. It is hopelessly leaden. It manages to be really bad and utterly nothing at the same time. Ah well.
But the oak tree which is the ginormous Star Trek book industry was once a little acorn, as in the beginning all such industries are. In 1967, it was decided by someone at Bantam Books in New York that a slim volume based on Star Trek might bring in a bit of money, joining that large pile of other telly books I wrote about last time. He or she can’t have had a clue what was being started. However, instead of doing either ‘original’ novels or full-length novelizations, the decision was made to turn a selection of scripts into a volume of short stories. This was a terrific idea: a forty-five minute TV programme is much nearer to a short story than a novel.
The man commissioned for these adaptations was the memorably named James Blish, and as always how and why he came to be chosen remains a mystery. He had been writing science fiction for decades and one of his novels, A Case of Conscience, was what Victoria Wood might call a totally bona fono classic of the genre. He was also well known for having informed Star Trek contributor Harlan Ellison that one of Ellison’s early pulp magazine stories, The Glow Worm, was the single worst story ever written. Ellison, who adored Blish, relished this anecdote, narrating it in several essays.
Blish was a strange choice in at least one respect: he lived in Britain, and had never seen Star Trek, which would not find its way to the BBC until 1969, by which time it had already been scrapped in America. It was scheduled on a Saturday afternoon, as a replacement for Doctor Who after The War Games, where it was hugely popular. Irritatingly, it was far more popular than Doctor Who, though not half as good. Still, it was science fiction, so I decided to like it.
I assume that the first book was meant as a one-off. Neither Blish nor Bantam could have expected it to do much business. As we now know it sold by the truckload. In reprints its title was changed from simply Star Trek to Star Trek One, and Star Trek Two arrived soon after, then Three and Four. The first volume that came into my hands was Star Trek Five, which had already been reprinted several times.( Even as an eleven year old, I read copyright pages, which was a bit weird of me.)
If James Blish ever became tired of turning out Star Trek adaptations, he never said so. He went on writing them and indeed died quite young in the middle of Star Trek Twelve, which his wife completed. Each book included an introduction. These grew longer as the series went on and were extremely friendly and chatty. I liked the introductions as much as the stories. Blish was very grateful for all the attention. He said that his Star Trek books had brought him more fan mail than all his other books combined. This conjured a picture of his house in England being inundated with sacks of mail, like movie stars. James Blish seemed to be a pal. I remember being shocked when the introduction to Twelve told us he had died.
Early on, I found the stories quite difficult to read. I realize now that Blish was writing for older readers. Doctor Who novels were essentially boys’ books. You found them on the children’s shelves. For Star Trek, when not spotted randomly on one of those spinners, (where I saw Star Trek Five, in a stationers,) you had to go to the science fiction department. In buying these books you felt quite grown up. It was like drinking beer.
Blish used American English, which can create confusion in a young mind.
To any child in Britain, a cot is what in the US is called a crib, a place where babies go to sleep. It has guard rails on all four sides. Sometimes a cot is pink and sometimes it is blue. In Star Trek Five, an elegant woman came aboard the enterprise and said she needed to lie down. She was taken to what Blish called a cot. I found this deeply bizarre and even a bit disturbing. Surely she was too tall for a cot. Her head would have to be propped uncomfortably against the top rail, and her feet would have to hang over the bottom rail. This bothered me so much I was unable to finish the story. I kept thinking about this poor woman squashed into a cot. Why did she not go to bed, like all normal adults? When the episode in question was repeated, I saw that she did indeed lie on a bed, albeit not a very comfortable one. Star Trek beds never looked comfortable.
Blish remarked that sometimes there were discrepancies between his stories and the episodes. He told us that this was because he worked from an early script, and sometimes changes were made before getting to the studio floor. This perhaps gives them, even now, some documentary interest for the right person. Frankly, I never knew the TV series in enough detail to catch the differences. But, as my teens wound on I acquired all these books and read and enjoyed most of them. They were tight and swift.
In the mid-seventies new episodes of Star Trek appeared on BBC 1, in cartoon form. It may surprise Americans who think of these as Saturday morning fare to hear that they were shown in the UK between seasons of Doctor Who, at 5:15 or thereabouts on a Saturday evening, roughly the same slot as the earliest Treks. Essentially, they were given to us as a fourth season, albeit produced in a different manner. God knows what they were like – they were never repeated in Britain, as far as I’m aware – but at the time I found them pretty exciting. On American Saturday morning TV, they must have seemed like Ibsen.
These episodes joined the ranks of Star Trek novelizations, written by someone called Alan. Though the cartoons were half the length of the live action stories, the adaptations were double the length. I bought a few – ‘Star Trek Logs’, as they were called – but read only one or two stories. For the most part, they joined the pile of unread TV books in my bedroom.
But there was a large pile of much more fabulous books based on a much more fabulous programme which did get read, many times. As I gobbled up Target books like they were ice cream, I didn’t imagine that one far-flung day I would be paid a pleasing sum of money to sit in a rather plush studio with a producer the other side of the glass and read two of these marvellous little volumes into a microphone…
My partner’s cousin lived his adult life at the intersection of the New York literary, gay and bohemian scenes. He was a professor at Fordham University and a regular contributor to the Village Voice. For a while he was an editor at the Voice’s literary supplement. He wrote a substantial, scholarly volume on 200 years of horror fiction and a history of pornography. He compiled a collection of literary letters. I did not meet him – he died shortly before I arrived in the US – but I went to his memorial service, where the main speaker was the editor of the New York Times Book Review.
The oeuvre of this gifted, cerebral man includes one distinct oddity. It is a 1978 novelization of a TV movie called A Fire in the Sky, starring Richard Crenna. Published as a paperback original, this is ‘based upon a story by Paul Gallico,’ so it is an adaptation of an adaptation. On the cover a comet plummets towards a populous city. Above the title are these words: ‘Seven days for creation… Twelve minutes for annihilation!’ On the back, even more breathlessly, ‘A Terrifying Novel of Cosmic Destruction!’
The book is a decent example of the TV novelization. The writing is efficient, plain, a bit characterless. Three sentences picked at random:
The city of Phoenix lay sprawled across the desert, wide open to the sky. They were all distinguished men, the most powerful men in the state, and none of them knew why Governor Ritchie had asked them to come there. Paula put a hand on each of Tom’s wiry arms and made him look in her eyes.
Those of us who are familiar with this strange, ignored genre have read similar sentences ten thousand times.
I am curious as to how this professional academic, a rather forbidding personality I’m told, came to write a TV novelization. He never wrote another. I suppose, in 1978, he was newly arrived in the city and needed the money, though I can’t imagine there was much of an advance. Did he meet an editor at a party? Or did an agent propose him for the job? Did he have to compete for it? These questions will have to remain unanswered.
The book now has that distinctive fragrance of all aging American paperbacks. The pages are browning and brittle. I wonder how many copies were sold? I can’t imagine it was in shops for very long. It was scarcely less disposable than a newspaper.
It led to me to wonder when the genre of the ‘novelization’ first came about. Of course, one way or another adaptation has been the lifeblood of the arts forever. Greek plays were variations on other Greek plays. Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from numerous text sources, both fictional and non-fictional, old poems, stories, even other plays. And I don’t know what Verdi’s Otello is if it is not an ‘operaization’ of the play.
In the nineteenth century, when the novel was king, the stream flowed to other media. Theatre producers staged unauthorized productions of Dickens’ serials, complete with happy endings, long before the serial had concluded, long before, in fact, Dickens had decided his characters’ fates. And if you could not afford the high price of a shilling for each monthly part of Nicholas Nickleby by the real Charles ‘Boz’ Dickens, there was a low-grade rip-off called The Adventures of Nicholas Nickleberry by ‘Bos’, obtainable for only a penny or two per episode. It was damn near to being a novelization of a novel!
But I think the first real ‘novelization’, the making of a book out of a success from another medium, must have been J M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy, which appeared in 1911, seven years after Peter Pan, the Boy Who Never Grew Up, had first been staged as a play.
Then came film. From the silent era well into the forties there were regular ‘photoplay editions’, usually reprints of old novels accompanied by photos from the film version, but sometimes novelizations. The novel of Metropolis was an adaptation by Fritz Lang’s wife. I have a copy from my mother’s library of the photoplay edition of A Matter of Life and Death, one of Powell and Pressburger’s masterpieces, and this too is an adaptation. Graham Greene wrote what might be considered ‘reverse novelizations.’ Commissioned to write a screenplay, he produced a novella first, essentially a detailed outline, setting out the situation, the characters, the atmosphere, some of the dialogue. The Third Man is the most famous example. The literary version was never meant for publication, though it eventually appeared as ‘the book of the film’. Greene’s 1948 novella for an unmade film project, The Tenth Man, was discovered in the nineteen eighties in a vault at MGM and published with a great deal of fanfare. (Rightly, it’s great.)
Even in the age of home video and DVDs, there have continued to be adaptations of films, though fewer. I recently saw a novelization of a new Godzilla film. No-one who has ever read a novelization can afford to be snobbish, but I do wonder who will read this.
Curiously, this kind of book almost wholly bypasses radio. There is no evidence that, for example, the millions of people who have tuned into The Archers for nigh on sixty years have any yearning to read novels about them. There were a few novels about the detective Paul Temple during his radio years, but many more during his TV years. In America, there were no Gunsmoke novels when it was the most popular radio drama of its day, but several when it moved to TV. In fact, there were Gunsmoke novels into the 21st century. For most of us the Western is moribund, but in pockets of the US it is still booming.
There is the unique figure of Julian MacLaren Ross, a notorious Fitzrovia drunk of the forties and fifties, who remains a legend to his small following and forgotten by everyone else. He wrote some brilliant books and stories and was tipped for literary stardom, but was so unreliable and, when drunk, so boring that his career fizzled. His last few books are hasty adaptations of his own radio thrillers. He must be the only writer tipped as a major literary talent to end his booze-sodden career doing novelizations.
By the fifties TV programmes had been drawn into this industry, though the first TV paperbacks that I am aware of, the original Quatermass trilogy, which came from the respectable imprint of Penguin books, were not novelizations at all, but printings of Nigel Kneale’s scripts. Even if you have the extant episodes on DVD, these are worth reading.
There is a bit of a blur between the novelization – a rendering of a script into book form – and an original novel ‘based on’ a series. The’ original novel’ was the more common approach. Generally, not always, books commissioned in America, even if drawn from British series like The Avengers, consisted of new material and books from London were renderings of scripts – Space:1999, (very well done by, among others, the impossibly prolific science fiction writer E C Tubb,) The Persuaders!, (by the man who wrote the war film 633 Squadron,) The Protectors, The New Avengers. Occasionally, a scriptwriter adapted his own script, which leant his book (to me, at least) an air of greater legitimacy: Kneale novelized the last of the Quatermass quartet. P J Hammond reworked his own Sapphire and Steel script. To The Manor Born was novelized by Peter Spence, complete with extra jokes.
Throughout the sixties and seventies, there were ‘original novels’ of Danger Man, Bonanza, Cannon, Hawaii Five-O, Land of the Giants and, incredibly, of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family. There was a long series based on The Man from UNCLE. (It is revealing than one of the men who wrote for UNCLE later wrote The Partridge Family.) There was a Columbo novel which said on the cover it was based on an episode, but it wasn’t.
In my teens I tried some of these ‘original novels’: one about Hawaii Five-O, God knows why, of which I only remember frequent mentions of women’s breasts and buttocks, which seemed pretty raunchy. This was the first time I had read a novel with the word ‘buttocks’ in it. A twelve-year-old boy, who could not get away with reading Playboy on the train, could happily read a Hawaii Five-O novel without anyone batting an eyelid, though buttocks swirled around the page. (Later, I knew a slightly staid fellow who was shocked that one of the first ‘original’ Doctor Who novels mentioned a woman’s “erect nipples”.) I tried several of The Avengers novels. I tried a Man from UNCLE novel, though I had never seen an episode and still haven’t.
These books seemed somewhat flat and lifeless to me. They tended not to get the tone of the programmes quite right, as if the writers had not watched them, but nor did they become interesting in themselves. One sensed these novelists were bored, and so was I. I never got to the end of a single one, not even the Hawaii Five-O one with the buttocks, though in my adult life I am a dedicated finisher of books.
But TV novels are 100% critic proof and this is a part of their charm. In the fifties, the American writer Gore Vidal turned temporarily to mystery fiction after the New York Times refused to review his serious novels on account of their gay content. As Vidal said, literary writers needed reviews to survive, genre writers, especially writers of paperback originals, whose books were found on spinners at railway stations and in supermarkets, didn’t. The TV novel, like low-grade erotica and Harlequin/Mills and Boon romances, neither needed nor wished for reviews. You bought them on an impulse because you liked the programme. Simple as that. You probably didn’t even read the puff on the back.
But there were other books from the telly, much much better books, which I was able to finish. Someone in a New York publishing house decided to grace the world with Star Trek novelizations, and someone in London decided… well… Next time.
I was pleased to see on an episode of QI that Stephen Fry thinks that the long-running detective programme ‘Columbo’ is possibly the best TV series ever. It is always good when Stephen Fry agrees with you. It makes you feel smart.
And Stephen Fry is right. ‘Columbo’ is brilliant, the format unique, the scripts excellent. The masterful lead actor turned in surely the finest series performance of its time, one which in both attention to detail and sustained quality has scarcely been matched since. Peter Falk was a one-eyed actor playing a two-eyed character and that, as Stephen Fry said, gives you a clue as to how good he was.
Falk played the character first in a 1968 TV movie, then in another one-off movie, before ‘Columbo’ became a series in 1971. This ran for seven seasons. He returned to the role in 1989, and made at least a special or two most years until 2003. He played the character across 24 years of a 37 year period in a total of 69 films. The character became instantly famous, and pretty much anybody could do their own little Columbo impersonation. But the sheer charm of the performance and, now, its familiarity, makes it easy to miss its absolute excellence. The apparent ease disguises the skill.
Remember Columbo’s catch-phrase? “Just one more thing…” The usual point of a catch-phrase is that not only the words remain the same but the manner of delivery. Think of all those catch-phrases from ‘Dad’s Army’. “Put that light out!” “They don’t like it up ‘em!” “Stupid boy!” Much of the joke is in the sameness: Captain Mainwaring’s irritation at Pike – “Stupid boy!” – is always the same thing. In ‘Columbo’, the line is always different. The rhythm, the inflection, the pace. Even the gesture of the hand. How many infinite variations can there be on one line of four words? This is virtuosic acting.
Columbo can’t develop in character terms any more than Poirot can. He boils down to some mannerisms ( the catchphrase, the bafflement, the unpretentious plain-man-in-a-rich-world ) and some props (the raincoat, the cigar, the falling apart car.) But, with Falk’s deftness, he never seems only these mannerisms and props. He seems alive and he’s hard to pin down. There’s some ambiguity as to how much we know about him. We understand that the bumbling man who infuriates the killer is not the razor-sharp real man, but we can’t be certain how much the bumbler is a front. Famously, he refers frequently to his wife, who never makes an appearance. We believe in her, but we can’t be quite sure that she exists.
Columbo’s world is a fantasy. The setting is LA, but not the real LA, not even the real moneyed LA, any more than Christie’s country houses and chocolate box villages are the real England, or Steed and Peel’s London the real London. Because it’s not real it doesn’t date. This may be why these shows, the earliest nearly fifty years old, seem so fresh. And the character himself, with his tatty raincoat and his bashed-up old car, is no more lodged in the seventies than in the forties, or the 2000s. In fact, Richard Levinson and William Link, the creators, said that one of their key inspirations was the playful, hectoring Porfiry Petrovich of the ‘Department of the Commissioner for Investigations’ from Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, and it is just as easy to imagine Columbo engaging in intellectual duels with Petersburgh princes as Californian millionaires. He is placeless and timeless. (And as a New Yorker in LA, he’s already something of an outsider.)
Falk is too good and true an actor to allow ‘Columbo’ to become a one-man show. The character needs an opponent to bring him alive, and much of the programme’s quiet intensity comes from the tension between the detective and the killer. The format is a clever variation on the Agatha Christie whodunit, which it overturns. The audience knows in the first scene who the killer is. The puzzle is not whodunit but how. Rather than the enjoyable ‘game’ of Agatha Christie, the result is real (albeit stylized) character drama, as the detective closes in on the killer. The nearer Columbo gets, the more arrogant, the more supercilious, the more contemptuous, his antagonist becomes. Because all the killers are extremely wealthy, there’s a satirical subtext, not laboured, on the American class system: the guy on a salary opposing a multi-millionaire. The murderer’s notes range from utter detestation to the pathetic and desperate, sometimes sad and oddly touching. (One of the killers is revealed to have old age dementia.) These two-hander scenes are full of subtlety and delicacy and suggestiveness, in both the writing and the playing. Throughout the seventies and again during the nineties revival, the ‘Columbo’ murderer was the best one-off acting job going in American TV. The actors plainly reveled in it.
It seems that all decent American TV is made in a state of unarmed combat between the programme makers and the suits: network execs, studio execs, accountants, advertisers. ‘Columbo’ was not only a rare artistic success, it was a commercial hit too, so you would suppose the best thing would have been to leave it alone. Nope. The suits could not stop interfering. Early on, they decided Columbo should have a young sidekick. The programme makers said no way. Peter Falk said no way. Upstairs insisted. The production team, reaching a compromise, said they would give him a dog.
“I don’t want a dog,” said Peter Falk.
“Wait ‘til you meet the dog.”
They found the ugliest dog in the word.
“Yes,” said Peter Falk when he saw him. “That’s Columbo’s dog.” In the series, he was called merely Dog. He made occasional scene-stealing appearances.
More damagingly, upstairs, noticing, as they do, the flood of advertising revenue, decided they could make even more money if they increased the running time from a ninety minute slot, about seventy minutes of material, to a two-hour slot, about ninety-five minutes of material. This is why some of the episodes from the second year onward feel a bit too long. They are. The extra running time was forced on the artistic staff. Not one of them wanted it.
But as faults go, this is a small one. The series maintained its integrity throughout its very long run and its star remained dedicated to it and serious about it and superb in it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series it needs no special pleading: I might recommend ‘Any Old Port in a Storm’ with Donald Pleasance as a wine merchant both comic and tragic, but, really, pick out pretty much any episode, particularly from the seventies run.
There are plenty of entry points for people who want another reason to take a look. ‘Star Trek’ enthusiasts might start with the episode featuring Leonard Nimoy as a particularly loathsome killer, and William Shatner is excellent in a late episode as a tabloid talk-show radio host, of which there are many in America. Actually, I met Shatner – or at least was in a Green Room with him – (Shatner, Mike Tyson and me…!) at an event shortly after watching this and wanted to tell him how good I thought he was in it, but felt it would be embarrassing. Walter Koenig crops up in one as a cop.
Martin Landau crops up too, playing identical twin brothers. There’s even a science fiction episode, featuring Robbie the Robot, (not as the killer!), which works surprisingly well.
But maybe the best start for cult TV fans is the six episodes involving Patrick McGoohan. These offer a good sampling of both the seventies series and the nineties revival. Falk and McGoohan work together wonderfully well. McGoohan regarded ‘Columbo’ as his finest work after his move to the USA. He plays four very different murderers: from the original series, in ‘By Dawn’s early Light’ he’s a Colonel, an austere head of a military academy, full of convictions about ‘turning boys into men’, icy and yet strangely sympathetic; In ‘Identity Crisis’ which he also directs, and which has loads of sly references to ‘The Prisoner’, he’s a CIA operative, icy and by no means sympathetic, though he enjoys the cat-and-mouse game with Columbo, even when he loses; From the revival, in ‘Agenda for Murder’, he’s a lawyer floating around at the edge of politics; and in ‘Ashes to Ashes’, a marvel of scenery-chewing camp, he’s a horrid celebrity mortician who kills a horrid gossip columnist. McGoohan also directed two in which he does not appear: ‘Last Salute to the Commodore’, a rare instance of a change to the format, (the apparent murderer in the first scene may in fact not be,) and ‘Murder With Too Many Notes’, the penultimate episode, with Billy Connolly, of all people, great as the killer, and with a solution so obscure that you will have to watch the denouement at least twice to get it. McGoohan shared a writing credit for this.
‘Columbo’ has been repeated ad nauseum all over the world, but it was not – in the UK at least – made available on VHS, so it’s only since 2012, when the final stories came out on DVD, that the entire series has been obtainable. It’s possible, more than ever, to appreciate what a remarkable achievement it is. It’s always clever, it’s funny, it’s dramatic, it’s sublimely played. It’s thrilling to see the countless permutations of the very tight format, always the same, endlessly different, like a blues improvisation. It’s unusually durable. The stories withstand multiple viewings. Doesn’t even matter if you remember whodunit! To my mind, until ‘The Sopranos’, American TV never did anything of such continuous excellence.
I first saw the new wave singer Lene Lovich on a children’s programme called “Magpie”. She sang her new single, “Lucky Number” in a strange voice sometimes spiky, sometimes ululating. I hadn’t heard pop so strikingly weird and to my ears so wondrous since “Wuthering Heights.”
“Oh my God,” I said to my sister, “Who is she?”
I wrote down something approximating the singer’s name, and bought the 45 the next weekend and, soon after, a picture disc of her first album, “Stateless.” This thrilling gem was released on Stiff Records, the hippest pop label of the time. I played it very, very loud that Saturday morning. “Stateless” was full of astounding pop songs, most written by Lene and her partner Les Chappell, performed in a vocal style I had never heard before, and neither had anyone else. A mixture, incredibly, of punk, bubble gum pop and ‘20s Euro-Cabaret, all stirred into a pungent blend. Though coloured with soul instrumentation – sax, organ – the album was as difficult to define as the title suggests. It was gothic pop before gothic pop existed. It had a ghostly quality, though muscular, not wispy at all: “Telepathy,” about a woman who knows when her boyfriend is cheating because his mind’s “like a TV” to her; “Sleeping Beauty,” about extreme plastic surgery, the complete reforming of a body; the dark, uncomfortable “Home,” about escaping it, which has become her theme song. There’s also a marvelous sex song, “Say When,” written by a man from the POV of a woman. “Hey, I call the shots. Baby, I say when!” This was a hit single.
“Stateless” was followed by “Flex.” Posters advertising “Flex” – images of Lene in a wedding dress – were all over the London underground when I began working for the BBC. “Flex” wasn’t “Stateless II”. It was eerier, more personal, a tilted, original vision, with subjects like reincarnation, angels, (a song which manages to be about both hairy bikers and the cherubim!) and suspended animation. Yet there’s still room for “Wonderful One,” a bouncy love song of great emotional clarity. I love the way her words embrace the dreamlike and impossible without seeming merely escapist, like all good fantasy they’re rooted in something.
The dying moment of “Flex” is “The Freeze,” one of the best science fiction songs you’ll ever hear. It was not her first such venture. Before she found a recording contract, she was asked by the French dance producer Cerrone to write lyrics for him, and she turned out a song called “Supernature,” which was a big hit. Lene can claim with these lyrics about a lost paradise, a theme to which she returns, to have invented the small, strange genre of science fiction disco…
A third of a century after it was made, “Flex” is still a unique artifact.
The third album, “No Man’s Land,” appeared after a wait of three years and, again, it feels less like a follow-up than an entirely separate work. This is 1982 and the sound is brighter, poppier, synthier, more polished, I suppose more commercial, though the songs are as vivid and unique as ever. They’ve taken on a widescreen, cinematic quality. (“Savages,” “Rocky Road.”) There is a startling, unforgettable song called “Blue Hotel” which seems to be about telepathic communication in the sky.
Les Chappell plays many of the instruments and co-writes the songs, and most tracks include his vocal contributions. These are rarely backing vocals in the orthodox sense. He interjects whoops, swoops, hollers, roars, banshee moans. Sometimes he sounds like a phantom on a football terrace. These effects are an integral part of the texture of the records.
I have been listening to these three albums again recently, because they’ve has just been reissued, in luminous new remasters overseen by the artist herself on her new micro-label Flex Music.
But the Stiff Records trilogy is not at all the whole story. When she was widely written about in the late seventies, articles made mention of a mysterious three-track Christmas single which had been released before her contract with Stiff. The articles and, in interviews, Lene herself, talked of this as something of a skeleton. I had the happy fortune of discovering a copy in the mid-eighties in one of those fabulous, dusty Camden Town record shops. (An actor friend lived in the flat over the shop, though I did not know him then.) The ‘A’ side is “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” and on the sleeve Lene is peering through a snow-frosted window, looking like a cross between a shocked French maid and my friend Bonnie Langford. The record is great fun, and I like the summery sound of the kettle drums, which must be unique in the history of Xmas musical oddities.
A fourth album, “March”, quietly crept into shops at the end of the eighties. Noticed only by her dedicated following, it’s on a smaller, more intimate scale than “No Man’s Land’” with some inspired songs, one about the condition of sleep and dream, “Night shift,”; one sung from the point of view of a shadow, and one, “Natural Beauty,” which is both a ‘lost paradise’ song and a simple declaration of love. (“Natural beauty still survives,/ I can see it in your eyes.”)
There was an endless, post-“Red Shoes”-length wait, (longer, in fact,) for the fifth, “Shadows and Dust,” which appeared out of the blue on a New York label in 2004, the voice and sensibility intact, the stylistic range wider: there’s the deliciously pantomimic “Wicked Witch” and a setting of Heathcote Williams’ humorous poem “The Insect Eater” in which Lene plays both Renfield and Dracula, alongside the beautiful and uneasy love story down generations “Remember,” the haunting “Shapeshifter,” the desperate “Little Rivers,” the poppy “Gothica.”
Throughout her career, she’s worn home-made stage costumes, which, in sync her performance persona, are exotic but not exactly locatable in time and place, though often loosely historical. The mysterious East? Camelot? A strange lost Europe? All of these. Some of her songs are science fiction, but, whereas the visuals of, say, Bowie or Annie Lennox lean towards the future, Lene leans towards a fractured, imagined past. Sometimes she wears head dresses. In one of my favourite photos, used for the sleeve of a 45, she’s in a sort of leather waistcoat and a black jacket fringed with lace. A deep red ribbon is wrapped around each of her wrists, her hands in black lace gloves. She holds a fan, which is open, resting on her lower lip concealing her chin. Her hair, usually in long plaits, is here piled frizzily, dropped into it more ribbons, looking like wet red roses. Her eyes are wide, her pallor ghostly. Somewhere between a film gypsy and the ghost of a Victorian lady? Very cool.
She has frequently been brought into the studio by other artists. Tom Verlaine of the group Television, The Residents and the Italian singer Giuni Russo all made good use of her. She turned up a few years ago as a randy android on a Hawkwind album, of which she was the highlight. Most interesting, maybe, are her appearances in two long dramatic musical pieces. She was a fragile and finally broken Madeleine Usher on Peter Hammill and Judge Smith’s airless, intense ‘opera’ “Fall of the House of Usher.” This record was a major discovery for me, being an introduction to Hammill’s vast and unique output. It exists in two variations. The first release, in 1991, used a standard rock group format, guitar, drums, keyboards. A few years later, Hammill returned to the tapes, stripped away almost all the rock accompaniment, redid his own vocals to much more powerful effect, and laid the remaining vocals (a superb cast: Lene, Andy Bell of Erasure, Herbert Grönemeyer, the spine-tingling Sarah Jane Morris,) on top of a spectral cushion of guitar sound. Either is worth hearing, but the revision is chilling. “Usher” was originally conceived for theatre and I sometimes wonder how it would work on stage.
Then there is Judge Smith’s recent “Orfeas,” (sic), one of a series of ‘song stories’ as he calls them, designed as sound-only musical narrative pieces. (Think Big Finish, sung.) Whereas “Usher” is doom-laden, “Orfeas” is wonderfully knockabout, Lene’s Eurydice supercilious, contemptuous, comic. Incidentally, she also made the mask of Orfeas which illustrates the booklet.
But now that “Shadows and Dust” is on the cusp of its tenth anniversary, I hope there will soon be a new album under her own name. She’s returned to touring, with a tight new band who plainly adore her. Her audiences are pleasingly mixed, from paunchy old blokes in “Never Mind the Bollocks” t-shirts to Goth girls to young gay guys who own all her records. (I’ve only recently realized that she’s a hidden gay icon, though it’s obvious that she should be.) She’s turned up in some extraordinary venues, including an excellent one underneath Brighton station which in a previous incarnation was a shed for railway vehicles.
I love what she does.
Oh, and she has produced the sweetest piece of pop music merchandise ever, key rings made from her stage costumes. Can you bear to be without one?
I found myself in the Anchor bar last Sunday afternoon. The Anchor is famous for its juke box, which annually wins the poll for ‘best juke box in New Haven.’ But the juke box was not playing, though its yellow lights flashed. Instead, someone behind the bar had put on the CD which contains ‘Ella and Louis’ and its follow-up ‘Ella and Louis Again’. I’d meant to stay for just one drink but I love that record so I sat in a booth and listened to the whole CD. I’ve known ‘Ella and Louis’ for decades, but I have never heard it played in its entirety in a fairly large, public space before. It would be wrong to imply it was like hearing it for the first time, but I was certainly hearing it differently. It was like hearing a remastering which brings new details forward, the vaudevillian absurdity of ‘Let’s do it’, the deep melancholy of ‘Willow weep for me’, the wistful yearning of ‘Autumn in New York’.
The Anchor is a dive bar from the old, weird America which exists now only in traces. You will not find ‘craft beer’ here, or a wine list. The walls are a very deep red. The seats in the semi-circular booths are brown plastic and not awfully comfortable. Mirrors above the booths reflect the darkness. It is always dark here. It smells of cigars, because it is right next to a cigar bar, the only bar in the city where it is legal to smoke, and the smoke curls pleasingly round to the Anchor. On cold days an old space heater is placed in the middle of the room, which emits a worrying smell. On a Friday night The Anchor is packed, with older couples out for a bite of diner-type grub, and office people relieved at the coming of the weekend and students who enjoy its retro-non-hipness which is a kind of hip. Also, working class men alone, sitting on stools at the bar, reading the New York Post. The tiny bar is in the far corner: three people and it’s taken up. This Sunday afternoon there are five people in the Anchor plus me. Two of the five are staff. They have all fallen silent: they are listening to the music. It is music that makes you listen. Louis Armstrong always has that effect.
Ella and Louis’ is a series of duets between Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald. It removes Armstrong from the context of his band. The accompaniment is instead by the pianist Oscar Peterson, the drummer Louis Bellson and the bassist Ray Brown, a classic mid-fifties mainstream jazz line-up. The cushion of Oscar’s piano is not a sound I associate with the Anchor, where normally seventies pop is playing on the jukebox and a smattering of early rock ‘n’ roll, but it lights up the room. Ella sings with sublime creaminess.
But Armstrong is something else entirely.
It must have been astonishing to hear these recordings the day they came out. The song choice is high end pop songs of the day, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, the kind of ‘sophisticated’ lyrics Armstrong had rarely recorded before. Lyrically and emotionally very different from ‘Tight like that’ and ‘Big fat ma and skinny pa’, two of his twenties masterpieces.
As a rule of thumb, it’s ‘the voice as an instrument’ (to use a cliché) that distinguishes great jazz singers from commercial vocalists, Billie’s voice or Betty Carter’s or Anita O’Day’s working like saxophones, the singers thinking like players. (Anita O’Day dressed like the musicians in the band, to say, hey, I’m a musician.) Everybody knows about the sublime musical love affair between Billie and Lester Young: Lester’s sax his voice, Billie using her voice as an instrument. This doesn’t explain Armstrong, whose voice is an extension of his instrument. There’s a beautiful fifties blues where he plays a trumpet obbligato to accompany his own vocal, the horn and the voice speaking to each other, responding to each other. He claimed to have invented scat singing – the wordless vocal – and he is certainly the first person to scat on a record. And yet he gets to the depths of words. The poet Philip Larkin put it well: Armstrong “tears lyrics up by the roots.” He was as deeply musical as it is possible to be, but he was also a profoundly word-driven man. If you’ve seen footage of him talking you’ll know what a wonderful interview subject he was. He was also a writer, though, born into abject poverty in red light New Orleans, he was lucky to escape illiteracy. He travelled with a typewriter, and wrote in the tour bus, in hotel rooms, in his dressing room. Reams of stuff, much of it published a few years ago. Letters, reminiscences, essays. So when he sings, the stretching of a vowel here, the emphasis of a consonant there (‘Louissss…’ ‘The Britishshsh Museum….’ ) may have a musical beauty, but it serves the lyrics too. I noticed listening in the Anchor how absolutely limpid his line readings are, the kind of clarity Gielgud brought to classical texts. Before the ‘Ella and Louis’ sessions it might (I suppose) have been imagined that the frosty, elegant wit of Cole Porter was not in his range, but it has never been done better.
Halfway through ‘Let’s Do it’ a new customer came in and went to the bar and ordered a drink which he took to a booth. He too was listening.
When the album finished I drained my glass and went out into the daylight, which was bright and sunny. I was exhilarated. I reflected on how much I love Armstrong and what a giant artist he is. But as always with great art, there is ambiguity. In the middle of my exhilaration, I remembered what Billie Holiday as a girl had said when she first heard him: “How can a music that is so happy seem so sad?”
I first visited New York City in the mid-eighties, but it has lived in my imagination much longer, as long as I can remember. A person’s first impressions of a place, however fantastical and inaccurate, never quite go away, and the New York I love to this day is a blend of the real and the imagined. My novels have all been set in a version of the city made up partly of the factual concrete place – there are chapters you can use as guidebooks! – and partly of the assorted variations which formed in my head at six years old, ten, fifteen, from art and entertainment: music, films, telly, comics.
New York was a distant, exhilarating place where life was edgy and exciting and exotic. Everything about New York was extreme. The buildings were extremely tall. The restaurants, where in corners pianists played ebony grand pianos, were extremely plush. The subways were extremely dark. The subway trains were extremely clattery. The cabs were extremely yellow. The cab drivers took extreme risks to get you places fast. Black people were extremely cool. Private Eyes were extremely laconic. The police were extremely trigger-happy.
New York was believed to be the most violent, shadowy, dangerous place on earth. (For a while, this was statistically true.) It was full of glittery rich people and angry poor people. All the glittery rich people were white and all the angry poor people were black. Being poor and angry, as packaged by pop culture, was hip, full of gritty energy. Truth was, it was hipper than being rich, though less comfortable. Neither Hispanic people beyond West Side Story nor, beyond the miniaturized ‘mysterious east’ of Chinatown, Asian people, were heard about much.
When Quentin Crisp, an Englishman in New York, said he adored America what he really meant was that he adored New York. In fact, that he adored Greenwich Village. When as a boy I thought of New York I thought of Manhattan. I had only the vaguest sense that there were other boroughs. Manhattan was America. All US TV programmes that were any good seemed to be set in New York, even if they weren’t. All comic books were set in New York. The blue skies of Manhattan were streaked by the multi-coloured costumes of countless superheroes. I remember wondering why, with all these superheroes around, the super-villains didn’t move to Chicago or LA, where they could rule the roost unchallenged. (Chicago, it must be said, had gangsters.) My favourite comic, The Fantastic Four, in its Jack Kirby golden age, was pretty cosmic, but New York was the centre of its universe. When the Silver Surfer or Galactus came to Earth it was always to New York. Doctor Doom was the ruler of a minor Eastern European nation called Latveria, inhabited exclusively by peasants, but he spent all his time flying to New York.
New York was drowning in music. The Greenwich Village folk scene of the sixties was thrilling in its way but the music that really mattered was jazz: Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington. The Apollo theatre. Louis Armstrong at Town Hall. Bird and Dizzy and Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk playing bop at the Royal Roost. Nearly every jazz musician recorded a live album at the Village Vanguard. “Live at the Village Vanguard” remains an evocative phrase. Strangely, Broadway music, unless reworked into jazz, didn’t do much for me, being too direct, lacking mystery. The city’s legendary small club cabaret scene appealed to me more in the abstract than in practice, maybe because, for me, cabaret benefited from a European accent. But pop singers and groups based in the city – Lou Reed, Blondie – were evocative of it, as if the place itself was stewed into the sound of the records. Pop songs which mentioned New York had an extra piquancy: most famously Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, though the song that gave me butterflies was called Native New Yorker by a group called Odyssey, about which I knew nothing else. It made me wish I was a native New Yorker. I still love it when I hear it. It makes me think of seventies Harlem, black people with afros, rather like the pictures on Miles Davis album sleeves of the time.
A lot of Europeans got their most vivid impressions of New York from the films of Woody Allen, who was to us a great film-maker, and most important, a great New York film-maker. We understood that he had lived in New York all his life and was in a way the ultimate New Yorker. He even sometimes wrote for the New Yorker magazine. His chunk of the city, populated by artistic white people at the upper end of middle class (or at least free of money worries,) who read literary novels, attended art gallery opening nights, queued at art-house cinemas, went to chi-chi parties where there was airy chat about these subjects, was a long way from Harlem, but the soundtracks were smeared with jazz.
New York after midnight made for a different cinematic and literary experience. With its tall buildings which cast shadows broken only by pools of light from street lamps, its cramped rooming houses, its brownstones, and perhaps because it rained a lot, three a.m.
New York was the ultimate noir city. I loved the books of Cornell Woolrich who was credited with inventing the genre. He spent most of his life living in New York hotels, first with his mother and after her death alone, becoming more isolated and strange as time passed, and describing, or inventing, a paranoid underbelly of existentialist terror. Woolrich’s books were so intense they made you sweat. In a breath-taking novel called Deadline at Dawn, a couple are hunted through the “night-scarred city”. The chapter headings are clockfaces so the reader can viscerally feel how far away the safety of dawn is.
The most intense New York noir vision was to be found in the Harlem novels of Chester Himes, who was one of the greatest of all American writers. In the forties and fifties he wrote a number of serious, damning, complex novels about American racism. Like most black American writers of the time he lived for many years in France, where, desperate for money, he took up a publisher’s invitation to try his hand at detective fiction. The result, A Rage in Harlem, was the first of what became nine increasingly surreal crime novels, brief and sharp as gunshot, featuring two black cops, Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones. Funny and violent and tragic; hot and dark and full of hurt. (The first volume of Himes’ autobiography was called The Quality of Hurt.) Himes had lived in Harlem and knew it well but these novels were much more than a report. They presented a kaleidoscopic, cinematic vision of the district: like the London of Dickens and the London of Hogarth, they were absolutely truthful and yet more unforgettably vivid, wilder, than life. Written in the late fifties and sixties, they were nominally set in the present, but ‘the present’ was a flexible concept. When a character put on a record, it was likely to be Bessie Smith. And yet, as has been observed, some of the imagery and feel of rap and hip-hop can be found in these books. That’s how far ahead of his time Himes was. He didn’t so much transcend the genre as blow it apart. He was a genius.
There were photographs too, of course, preferably black and white. New York has always been incredibly photogenic. Shots of the lights of Broadway, bright but blurry, Times Square, shots of the famous sky-line, shots of the village. Exteriors of music venues, the Vanguard, the Gaslight, the Bitter End. The faces of beat poets. The faces of ex-pats: Auden, Crisp. Shots of people on boiling hot summer days, sitting on fire escapes and in open windows, shirtless, cigarettes in mouths, the radio (one imagined) playing in the background.
Strangely, though the summers were notoriously hot, the city’s other weather extreme was rarely touched on: it never snowed in any of these assorted New Yorks. It was a shock to find when I began living nearby that there was snow on the ground three months of the year.
All these variations connected to each other only at the edges, like Venn diagrams, but the resulting impressions amounted to both a series of fractures and an oddly convincing whole, only parts of which can be visited bodily but which add up to the ultimate mythic American city.
I mentioned in my memoir about Doctor Who, Blue Box Boy, that I had a sneaking affection for the old American day time soap Dark Shadows, which ran for five years at the end of the sixties. I had never seen it, though I had heard of it, until I found myself living in America, where it was being recycled at an ungodly hour. It’s easy to take the piss out of, with its wobbling sets and its glacially slow pace and the struggles of its actors to remember lines, but once you appreciate the circumstances under which Dark Shadows was made – the programmes were recorded as live, five days a week – you begin to recognize that the cast were doing rather wonderful work.
Many of the central characters – Barnabas Collins, Quentin Collins, Julia Hoffman, Willie Loomis, even the witch Angelique in her evil way – have an authentic note of the tragic. The series began as a rip-off of Jane Eyre, and there is something mini-Bronteish to these damaged people, living day to day, year to year, even century to century, with a kind of dignity. What I admire about the series is its weirdly unflinching sense that nothing can ever be put right. There are moments of calm, the consolation of occasional sex, but these are impermanent. The characters are cripples who have to find a way to live with their condition.
(There are some subtextual elements which I strongly dislike. Women in their late teens and early twenties always fall head over heels in love with men in their forties, and – much more troubling – women who express the slightest interest in non-marital sex, prostitutes and non-prostitutes alike, unfailingly die violently before the end of the episode.)
The producer of Dark Shadows, Dan Curtis, cashed in at the height of the soap’s popularity by making two films, House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows. Both these films were horribly re-edited by the film company, so the versions we have are mutilated. The last half hour of the second makes no sense whatever.
Plot elements of the soap opera are reused, but to completely different effect. The films occupy an alternative universe a great deal bloodier and more brutal. In House of Dark Shadows, the TV cast play their TV characters, and Curtis proceeds to kill nearly all of them off in a swift ninety minutes. The ten-year old boy David, in a scene cut by the film company but to be seen in a trailer, hangs himself. There are operatic amounts of blood of an extreme, stylised redness, offset by blues and foggy whites. Jonathan Frid, freed from the schedule of daytime TV, is majestic.
It’s hard to escape the sense that the many shots of peculiar beauty came about because Dan Curtis didn’t quite know what he was doing, but that doesn’t make them less beautiful. House of Dark Shadows feels like a commentary on all the tropes of the gothic horror film. If it had been done in French, everyone would now recognize it as a high-camp art-house masterpiece!
Anyhow, James Goss at Big Finish productions, who have a line of Dark Shadows audios, read Blue Box Boy and dropped me a line:
Would you like to play a mild-mannered occult-worshipping serial killer in an episode of Dark Shadows?
I had always wanted to play a mild-mannered occult-worshipping serial killer. I don’t think
there’s any Equity member who hasn’t .
I had no doubt that doing ‘Dark Shadows: The Creeping Fog’ would be great fun, which it was, but I didn’t expect to be playing such an interesting character – one of the most interesting I have ever played – and I didn’t expect a script of such a high quality. It’s essentially a two hander between David Selby and I, augmented by some spooky voices. The core of the piece was recorded in one day in LA.
‘The Creeping Fog,’ written by Simon Guerrier, is one of a number of episodes which take place during World War II. The immortal Quentin Collins finds himself in a pub in fogbound London in 1941, where, seemingly accidentally, he bumps into a vague, scholarly and bumbling middle-aged chap called John Cunningham who runs a dusty, down-at-heel museum over the road. They find themselves overnight in the museum, where the bumbling mask which John presents to Quentin keeps falling away, to reveal, at first, the glint of the true obsessive, then something very dark. To put it simply, he’s completely crazy. I’m not giving anything away; the attentive listener can deduce this by John’s second line, the distracted listener by his third.
‘The Creeping Fog’ is a mad and dark and sublime piece of gothic fiction.
While in the studio in LA, I also did a couple of cameo characters for a story called ‘The Crimson Pearl’ by James Goss and Joseph Lidster. I didn’t see the full script for this, only my own lines, so I didn’t have any real sense of what ‘The Crimson Pearl’ amounted to until I heard it recently. It turned out to be an adorably lavish 45th anniversary special with a vast cast – just about every surviving Dark Shadows actor, and cameos from Doctor Who people Nicola Bryant, Louise Jameson and I. James and Joseph had the brilliant idea of doing this story in a series of bite-sized five minute episodes, a sort of miniaturized, Faberge egg version of the soap opera itself, as the mysterious pearl (“as if Lucifer plucked out one of his own eyes…”) is passed from hand to hand down generations and centuries. If the episodes are miniature, the story isn’t – it crosses two centuries in an hour. Everything-but-the-kitchen-sink anniversary specials, ranging through the entire history of a series, are enormous fun, and ‘The Crimson Pearl’ is as good an example as I’ve come across. The effect is of a sort of audio 3-D!
When the TV series finished, it left a library, so to speak, of reconstructed, slightly warped variations on every gothic character archetype – the vampire, the werewolf, the ghost, the witch, servants of satan, every damned thing you can think of. They have endless possibilities.
I was sad to come across the obituary of the brilliant poet Sebastian Barker today. I’ve been reading his books for years. Here’s a poem from his collection ‘The Erotics of God’:
The crazy sky is slit with light,
the dream emerges from
The vast receptacle of light
where no attendants came.
Slit from ear to ear the brain
sees itself in this,
The crazy colours of the sun
exploding the abyss.
I was delighted to be asked during 2013 to make a couple of appearances at the National Film Theatre on the South Bank as part of the British Film Institute’s year-long celebration of Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary.
For the Fifth Doctor event, Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, the director Graham Harper and I shared a terrifically enjoyable panel (I thought so anyway) after a showing of that astounding serial The Caves of Androzani. The Robots of Death was the chosen story for the Fourth Doctor, and though I loved seeing this again, there was no point in me being on the panel because I had nothing to do with it! The organizer Justin Johnson asked me instead to give a little introductory talk. I’ve recently found the notes I made for this, so, for those who were not at the NFT and are interested, here is what I said:
Thanks so much to Justin Johnson for inviting me to introduce this diamond of a Dr Who story –I didn’t know I would be in London this weekend so it was very last minute and I’m delighted to be here.
Well, 50 years of this extraordinary series, this strange, wildly inventive, colourful, funny, scary, sublime series! I have been associated with it for well over half my life, and because I found myself on a set for the first time with my hero Doctor Who when I was only only 18, all my adult life. I will always be the boy from Dr Who, even when I’m 80 – the oldest Dr Who boy in Equity.
I’d grown up watching it too, knew it well, long, long before I received a script.
One way or another, it has been lodged in my imagination all my life. The first actor I knew by name was Patrick Troughton. I can’t remember I time when I didn’t know the TARDIS set, imagine myself on it. It’s the same for you, I’m sure.
Then, in 1974, out of the blue he appeared, Tom Baker, strangely alien and completely unexpected and unlike anything we’d ever seen before. We’d never heard of him and neither had our parents. Our parents had at least vaguely heard of the earlier Doctors – “Oh yes, Jon Pertwee, he does funny voices on the wireless” – but Tom, to we who loved him it was as if he existed only to be the Doctor – one day he wasn’t there and the next he was incredibly there, and for those of us who loved his Doctor, (he and his Doctor, they were one to us.) went to the heart of our imaginations.
We were fascinated by him and we wanted to be him, We wanted to stalk about the place saying things like, “would you like a jelly baby?” and “what’s the point of being grown-up if you can’t be childish some of the time.” We played with our yo-yo in the school lunch break. I had an official Doctor Who yo-yo with a picture of the Daleks on the side, which got rubbed away with long use. We had posters of Tom and Louise on our bedroom walls. We were in love with Leela – Even if we were gay we were in love with Leela. We wanted to be regarded as eccentric and a little mysterious by our friends. Though our intellectual capacities were limited, we identified ourselves with the cleverest man in the universe, which suggests a hint of ego-mania, or at least a lack of self-knowledge. Of course we wanted to wear a hat and a very, very long scarf. I have tried to think of another really famous fictional scarf and I can’t recall one – The Fourth Doctor’s scarf is simply the most famous imaginary scarf in this universe. When I was making Dr Who, I found that if I wore a scarf, and I don’t mean a long multi-coloured scarf, I mean an ordinary studenty purple scarf, on the reasonable grounds that it was the middle of winter and freezing, the chances of a child stopping me and asking for a signature increased discernibly. If someone saw my face and wondered if that was the boy from Dr Who, the scarf seemed to confirm it for them.
We’re going to watch one of the Fourth Doctor’s most unforgettable adventures now. The Robots of Death, with its air of mystery and murder and threat and those robots with their utterly impassive sarcophagus-like faces was a story so vivid no Dr Who enthusiast ever forgot it. This was a story we all talked about at school, every Monday morning after each episode, puzzling over the mystery as it thickened. I suppose there are very few people in this room who have not seen these episodes, – if there are any, they’re in for a treat – but the rest of us have never seen them on a ginormous screen at the National Film Theatre. I’m really looking forward to this. It’s going to be fun! Doctor Who – the Robots of Death.
The vibe at these BFI events so cool that, when I was back in the UK a couple of months later, I took up the invitation to see the Seventh Doctor’s really splendid story, Remembrance of the Daleks, and later a special showing of Mark Gatiss’s brilliant and sad play about William Hartnell, Adventures in Time and Space. The culmination of the anniversary itself took place at the NFT too: that’s where twenty Doctor Who actors watched the 50th anniversary episode, ten minutes ahead of the rest of planet earth! That’s where the ‘after-show party’ was broadcast from.
It’s fair to say that the 50th anniversary would have been a lot less fun without the support and interest of the BFI.