Thursday, March 27, 2008

The First Rule of Fright Night...

...is you do not talk about Fright Night*.

Well that obviously won't do in a review, but it is a problem for the team behind the 'Fright Night' TV show, as seen in the first book in Steve Rogers' new series of supernatural detective novels aimed at kids.

No-one is watching Uncle Larry's ghostly investigations reality show and with a minimal fx budget which allows only for rubber chickens on string and a rival show dripping cash and cgi goblins and ghoulies, things are looking pretty bleak.

Luckily Larry's twin niece and nephew, Adam and Lana, mistakenly release the ghost of a young boy from the stone circle the TV crew are investigating and from then on in, things start to look, if not always up, at least more promising...

This is a book aimed at seven to nine year olds, so don't expect a pile of snogging and shooting, or many of the other common preoccupations of Young Adult novels.

Instead what you get is a proper creepy kids book, with sufficient weird beasts, scary adults, unsettling ideas and occasional grim humour to keep even the most jaded of primary school children happy (well you know what I mean). It's a good read for that age level, snappily written and successful in avoiding the all too easy trap of talking down to the young readership, with the added bonus of a series of excellent set pieces (we liked the fog spiders best) and a logical and consistent ending (something many adult books could so with emulating).

This is the first in a series of adventures for Lana, Adam and the ghostly Fergus, according to the (slightly disappointing**) book cover. The boy and I will be looking forward to the others.

* That's Fright Night: Shrieking Stones, to give it's full, click to purchase, title
** In that in a book packed with witches, giant spiders and living tapestries, the best the artist scould come up with was a scene of the ghosts flying out of the stone circle.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Something Borrowed, Everything New

There are good ideas and there are great ideas.

Naming a band 'Dogs Die in Hot Cars' and my own plan to remake Seven Brides for Seven Brothers using only the music of 'The Smiths' are good ideas.

Tetris, naming a band 'The Jesus and Mary Chain', and Joss Whedon making his vampire slayer a hot young Valley girl are great ideas.

But Paul Magrs making his vampire hunter the Bride of Frankenstein? Now that's a superb idea.

Not that I'd want to give the impression that Magrs' series of books about Brenda (Whitby B&B woman and wonderfully human creature of the night) is in any sense a mere extension of Whedon's earlier TV series. As Torchwood amply demonstrated, trying to copy Joss Whedon leads only to crass scenes of alien sex in toilets and tedious yawnfests aplenty - and Paul Magrs isn't the pinching ideas kind of writer in any case. Other writers work isn't so much grist to his mill as an odd kind of mulch fermenting in his head, being subsumed and broken down to its constituent parts before being launched back into the fresh air as something virtually unrecognisable (that sounds a bit arty-farty, I know, but I'm trying to attract a higher class of readership - more people like Steven Fry and Anthony Stewart-Head and fewer like Saffy and Steven :-)

Which brings me neatly to Magrs new book, Something Borrowed, the sequel to Never the Bride, in which all manner of dark and forgotten creatures come burrowing back into the light of day to menace Brenda and Effie(see that's the kind of new, more intellectual segue we're going for now - someone explain what's going on to Scott please).

Opening a little after the events of the first novel in the series, Never The Bride, Something Borrowed features
(as you would expect) many of the cast of that book but also - to the delight of this reader at least - Henry Cleavis, Reg Tyler and the rest of the Smudgelings, as seen in both Magrs' Doctor Who novel, Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and his more recent 'real world' novel, To the Devil - A Diva. Perhaps we can look forward to an appearance of the poodles of Dogworld, horror queen Karla Sorenson and the cast of dodgy soap opera Menswear in future books in the series? Maybe even Iris Wildthyme herself? I can tell you now, that would be cooler than a sculpture of David Bowie made of ice cream. Cooler even than that, if you can imagine such a thing.

Back to the present book though. Hmm, it's not easy to sum up a Paul Magrs book in a single sentence, which might explain why marketing pod-people seem incapable of launching such an individual talent into the literary stratosphere, whilst pedestrian chunderers like JK Rowling rake in hundreds of millions of pounds for their mundane and inept sagas. [Damn, I'm already losing my air of studied professionalism and slipping into my usual stock whining - give me another ten lines and I'll be calling Russell T Davies and Vladimir Romanov a pair of duplicitous shits.]

Let's try that again...

Back to the present book though. Fresh from the discovery that Whitby hosts its very own Hellmouth, Brenda unexpectedly hooks up with old flame, centenarian academic and Smudlgelings' founder member, Henry Cleavis and in doing so awakens long repressed memories from the past. Meanwhile, someone is sending poison pen letters round town, Effie and the Womanzee get shot at, Sheila Manchu turns to the ladies for help and Brenda has some very unexpected visitations in the night.

This is, quite simply, the best book of last year - a marvellous mix of an Alan Moore comic and an Alan Bennett play, packed with the odd, the perverse and the fabulous, stuffed with memorable characters and over-flowing with incident, both humorous and otherwise. Where else but in a Magrs novel would you expect to see both the Bride of Frankenstein rescuing her 100 year old lover from
Goomba the Wicker(work Chair) Man and a genuinely human and touching tale of the strengths which bind friends together?

Nowhere, that's where.

Which is why Magrs is an author to be treasured in these days of writing by rote and publishing only the plastic and the puerile. Do everyone a favour - don't bother buying whatever the latest formulaic Garth Nix bollocks is called and buy Never the Bride instead. Then go to Amazon, ignore the adverts for The
Bejewelled Sword of Wizardry in the Land of Implausible Unicorns and Other Faintly Chirpy Shit and buy Something Borrowed.

You won't regret it, I guarantee it.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Feared by the bad, loved by the good, Robin Hood

In 2001, satirical US website The Onion ran an article bemoaning the difficulty American TV execs were having in managing to cater for an increasingly low Lowest Common Denominator amongst their viewership. The intention was humorous, but as with all satire, the joke works best because it's true.

In a TV world where reality shows seem incapable of plumbing a depth beyond their viewers ability to wallow, and where the schedules are packed with presenters in open necked shirts and nice suits whipping up enthusiasm for watching other people move house, put up a conservatory or buy a bloody yoghurt, there's a temptation simply to settle for making whatever crap the public will swallow and allow quality to fall by the wayside.

But this isn't one of those screeds where the author moans his arse off about Celebrity Wanking for Coins. No, this is (yet another) one of those screeds where the author whines like a middle-aged and balding baby about the way TV bastards are stealing all the most fondly-remembered shows from his youth and re-making them in patented and trademarked Chavovision.

Take Robin Hood, for example. Ignoring the black and white version fro
m the 1950s on the grounds that it's both dull and utterly indistinguishable from Ivanhoe, William Tell and that one with Ian Chesterton from Doctor Who, you're left with a choice of three main TV versions.

1. From 1975, starring Avon as the Sheriff of Nottingham, Ford Prefect as Prince John and Diane Keen as Maid Marian. This is the legend of Robin Hood as political thriller and as a result is more often than not set in rooms in castles, rather than Sherwood. Unbelievably to modern eyes, the outlaw gang don't even rob any rich passers-by until more than two thirds of the way through and they're pretty much all dead soon afterwards in any case.

You couldn't mistake this for anything but a big bloody slab of intelligent seventies miserablism, following in the 'faces like well skelped arses' tradition of When the Boat Comes In, Survivors and even supposedly kiddie fare like The Changes. In the Seventies, if the
hero wasn't dead in a ditch by the end of the series then they just kept making more series until he was. No pandering to the audience here, just thoughtful drama filled with pointless death against a backdrop of Kings and Princes manoeuvring for position and in the end neither knowing nor caring that the little people get killed.

And they're not even heroic deaths - no-one even gets poignant last words, for Rutger's sake. Will Scarlet dies early on in a fight, Much gets hanged for something he didn't do, Tuck dies of a mysterious plague and Robin gets poisoned and, like Jack Ford, dies alone at the side of the road. Them's proper deaths, them is and that's yer actual realism, that is.

The 1970s - it truly was a Golden Age.

2. Flit forward ten years and enter Robin of Loxley, played with long haired angst by uber-hunk Michael Praed. Flit forward another couple of years and exit Praed, off in a huff and a puff of self-delusion which led him to believe that stardom inevitably lay ahead. How he must lie awake at night now, sobbing into his pillow as he contemplates a future in which the high spots are starring in the dreadful radio revival of Blakes 7 and reading the updates on - I kid you not - Michael Praed's Chest Hair Moments

Praed - and his replacement for a single season, Jason Connery, as the fortuitously named Robin of Huntingdon - is Robin Hood as Beckenham Arts Labs Hippy Mystic. If they'd had turntables in the thirteenth century, the Merry Men would have been sitting round the camp fire smoking joints the size of baby's arms, listening to the latest Nick
Drake lp and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Which should make this my natural environment*, but unfortunately it's all so mind-numbingly, spirit crushingly earnest and slow that I've never managed to get past the end of the first season. Adding insult to injury, it has Clannad warbling (I assume) about how really, really fantastic trees are and how bushes are God's little cotton wool buds. Plus it wastes John Abineri (fabulous as Marian's guardian in the 1975 production) as Herne the Hunter, a Care in the Community borderline nutter with a penchant for wearing animal horns on his head like some deranged member of the Flintstones' Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes.

Even so, it at least makes an effort to do something new with an old story and if it's occasionally too slow and feels like a throwback to seventies serials, well that's not necessarily a bad thing.

And in complete fairness, I'm told by fans that the series really takes off in the second season when Carpenter gets to grips with the plotting requirements of 50 minute episodes. But for Christ's sake, I've watched Gridlock twice - how much more of my life do you want me to waste?

3. Which leaves the ASBO-wielding danger monkey antics of Jonas Armstrong as Joe Cole as Robin Hoodie himself. Don't get me wrong, I have loads of time for the latest incarnation of Robin Hood. It's silly and stupid in roughly equal parts, doesn't take itself even slightly seriously and can be damn funny, something never achieved by either of the earlier versions, for all their other virtues.

But there's no denying it's dumb as a Nicole Richie reality tv show. Hmm, there's a thought. Now that I think about it, Nicole and her skank drunk driver pal Paris would fit into Hoodie with barely a ripple. Short on personality and totally, completely, utterly bizarrely dressed, they're popular only because their total cluelessness and maddeningly illogical behaviour appeals to some broken part of people's minds.

Hoodie
's the same. It actually aspires to a quality level which for most shows would be viewed as dramatic failure, and then positively revels in its own inanity.

For most TV series, the really eye-gougingly bad writing is reserved for the 100 page kid friendly novelisations** with bright photo covers and relatively complex plots boiled down to three or four straight-forward set pieces. Hoodie starts at that low, low point, so I shudder to think what the wafer thin novelisations actually consist of:

"Parent Hood by Mandy Archer

Chapter 1


Robin tried to kill a bad man but he escaped.

The bad man poisoned Marian with some poison he had that was poisonous. She was dead.

But Robin kissed Marian even though that would be minging because he loved her and she came back to life. They will probably have a baby now.

The End.

PS I kissed my gerbil but it was still dead and a bit smelly and mum said to put it back in the bucket, you stupid girl."
It's as entertaining as anything on television nowadays but Jesus suffering Christ on a big shiny bike, it's a show for the ADD Generation. Compared to the 1975 story it's a whole new world of stupid, and coating that stupidity in a thin layer of wink-wink, nudge-nudge knowingness doesn't make it any less daft. Being me and given that I like it, I've managed to read all sorts of meaning into it (actually, I'm no different in that respect to those who add layers of meaning to New Who, so perhaps I should be more charitable to those sorry souls) and invest it with a depth which almost certainly doesn't exist, but for the casual viewer it's pitched at exactly the right level of pig-brained imbecility.

There's a scene in the first series that perfectly sums the show up. Robin and his anti-social gang are standing about outside a village which has been walled up by the evil Sheriff, who is determined to starve the villagers into giving him the information he wants. Undaunted, the Merry crew push bread and fruit through the points of their arrows and fire them sight unseen over the walls to the unsuspecting but grateful villagers. But what if one of the arrows had thudded not into a handy cart, but into a less handy child's head?

There's an easy fix for the writer and director - have the outlaws stand on a nearby hill and fire downwards so that they can see where the arrows are going, but obviously no-one actually gives a monkey's and we're left with a rain of arrows battering down amongst what should be a terrified populace.

But they're not terrified, as it turns out, because they don't give a monkey's either. You can see it in their eyes, a desperate desire to be somewhere else, far away.

On the set of the 1975 production perhaps, with Robert Banks Stewart's words echoing in their ears and Trevor Griffiths as Little John firing an arrow into the air - "wherever this arrows falls, there shall Robin lie".

Now that's quality.

* Except for the D&D bit. Ridiculous game.
** Doctor Who is generally the exception to this rule.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

From Small Screen to Big (and Back Again)

There's something joyous about UK sitcoms from the mid-part of the nineteen seventies. Amateur they may well be, full of missed cues and fluffed lines they certainly are, but they're also unmistakably British: products of the first half of that strangest of periods, when the hippy idealism of London in the 1960s spread out weakly across the provinces, and the counter-culture, ruthlessly diluted until the original sense of revolution had all but disappeared, was invited into suburban living-rooms.

That they were popular with the viewing public is without doubt, even if TV critics scoffed at them (one American critic memorably describing the US version of Man About the House as "quite simply, the worst piece of sitcom trash that's ever been on television"). Viewing figures were high enough to lead to spin-off series (Man About the House alone generated two successful follow-ups in George and Mildred and Robin's Nest plus attendant movies), format exports to the USA* and to make stars of the actors involved.

Interestingly, they were also part of that period in UK television history when the various regional ITV companies were not - as they are now - completely without merit. While the very top layer of sitcoms in the period were predominantly made by the BBC, there were plenty of ITV offerings in an equally vibrant second tier of comedies. For every Porridge occupying the very pinnacle of comedy, there was a
lesser - but still entertaining - Please Sir! down amongst the foothills. But what unites each of these shows is that most 1970s of phenomena, the movie adaptation.

To understand the reasoning behind the creation o
f a wealth of big screen versions of what are in every way small screen endeavours, it's necessary to go a bit historical for a moment. Feel free to skip past this bit if you've got no interest in the behind the scenes stuff. I'll let you know when you're safe to rejoin the masses.

In 1949, Harold Wilson - at that point Head of the Board of Trade - had suggested the imposition of a tax on box office receipts in the United Kingdom, with the proceeds of this new levy being ploughed back into the British film industry.
The idea was taken up by a government keen to support a domestic film industry being destroyed by Hollywood and so the levy was introduced in 1950 on a voluntary basis, before becoming a statutory with the introduction of the Cinematograph Film Act in 1957. The most basic consequence of the levy was that a proportion of the ticket price was to be pooled and divided among British films which qualified during the year in question.

[Welcome back to those who chose to miss out that in-depth, detailed and scholarly single paragraph on taxation matters. Take a seat and grab a biscuit from the packet on the table. The rest of this is more interesting, I promise.]

The net effect of the new tax was immediately apparent, as British film makers cast about for opportunities and quickly cast an eye over contemporary TV hits for inspiration. The first of the Eady funded movies was a big-screen version of The Army Game entitled I only Arsked! in which an Arab prince hires the lads from Hut 29 to protect him from revolutionaries back home. Unfortunately, while I do have a copy of the movie, I've never managed to work up the energy to watch it (both because I prefer the sequel series, Bootsie and Snudge, and because the lack of William Hartnell in the movie removes the Doctor Who link which can get me to watch almost anything). In similar vein, both Jimmy Edwards Whacko! and Peggy Mount's The Larkins were given the big-screen treatment soon afterwards, but life's too short, frankly, even if The Larkins at least sounds worth watching.

Instead, let's flit forward about ten years, to the first and a contender for the best of the big sitcom movies - Till Death Us Do Part. The initial thing worth noting about it is that whereas The Army Game upscaled the action by dropping the cast into a succession of harem-related hi-jinks in the Middle East, TDUST did so by the unique method of expanding the timescale and showing Alf Garnett's life from World War II to the present day. It's a very good idea, as the strength of the TV show lay in large part in the combination of Johnny Speight's writing for, and Warren Mitchell's performance as, arch-bigot Garnett. With a running time three times longer than the TV show it is possible to show Alf growing into the racist misanthrope he eventually becomes and so manages to open up the series without losing the very element which made the TV version popular enough to generate a movie. It's also very well directed, with every sign that money has been spent on it (not an accusation you could aim at every sitcom movie). The 1972 follow-up, The Alf Garnett Saga, is a direct sequel but is probably best avoided. Even the inclusion of the majestic John Le Mesurier as Alf's new neighbour can't save a film in which the parts of Rita and Mike are both inadvisedly recast and the high point of the plot is Alf taking an acid trip!

If Till Death was a sixties sitcom given longevity by the (non) appeal of its star, then Man About the House was the epitome of sitcoms in the 1970s. With Richard O'Sullivan's Robin Tripp as the man sharing a flat with two girls, Jo and Chrissie, the TV series revolved around Robin's attempts to talk Chrissie into bed and the trio's interaction with their landlords, the scruffy and lazy George Roper and his fun-loving, sex-starved wife Mildred. Like Till Death the writers choose to dump the core concept of the tv series and instead open things out, but with less clear-cut success.

In common with every other one of these movies, this opening out basically involves moving the action from within one location and out into the wide world (in passing, isn't it odd how every one of these movies uses sets utterly unlike those seen in their TV counter-parts?)

Demonstrating that the more things change, the more they stay the same, the movie version of MatH concerns itself with the problem of urban redevelopment and the lack of affordable housing for young people in London. Arthur Lowe (taking a break from playing the officious but caring Captain Mainwaring) here plays Mr Spiros, the acerbic CEO of a building company who orders the ever dependable upper class twit Peter Cellier to buy all six houses in the Roper's street, so as to knock them down and build offices. Predictably George wants to sell up, whilst Mildred and sitting tenants Robin, Chrissie and Jo are determined to hold out against the redevelopment. Comic misunderstanding and deviousness ensues and for the first hour the film feels exactly like a TV episode with a slightly bigger budget.

In the final section, however, the film kicks up a much-needed gear. The gang follow George to the Thames TV studios where he's trying to hand his house deeds over to Cellier's Morris Pluthero. Once there, Spike Milligan makes a couple of appearances at his most manic self, while Jack Smethurst and Rudolph Walker from execrable racecom Love Thy Neighbour (also adapted for the big screen) meet George in the studio bar and briefly poke fun at their sitcom characters when Smethurst indignantly berates George for directing a 'humorous' racist comment at Walker. As is often the way all returns to the status quo in the end - even Robin's nearly successful attempt to seduce Chrissy is interrupted in the nick of time!

The subject of famous guest stars is one of the few interesting points in the movie adaptation of the Sid James vehicle, Bless This House. For reasons which appear obvious, Robin Stewart who played Sid's son Mike in the TV series was replaced with seventies sex farce staple (and all-round ugly git), Robin Askwith. In fact Stewart simply couldn't do the film as he had another acting job for the period in which filmed took place. The addition of next door neighbours Terry Scott and June Whitfield - essentially reprising the same characters as they always play - is a more obvious attempt to inject some star appeal into proceedings, as is the replacement of Anthony Jackson (in the role of Sid's best friend Trevor) with Carry on regular Peter Butterworth. The fact that the creative team behind the Carry Ons, Peter Rogers and Gerald Thomas, were producer and director of the Bless This House movie is presumably not co-incidental.

In fact these two were themselves interlopers, with series creators Vince Powell and Harry Driver also replaced on scripting duties and, as far as I can see, absent entirely from the film's crew. That this makes little difference to the finished product - a tale of star crossed lovers getting together in the face of parental disapproval, with a side order of home whisky making and an intriguingly modern interest in the environment - does, however, demonstrate the rather routine nature of the source material.

The Bless This House solution of simply dragging a half-hour story out so that it fills 90 minutes is actually quite unusual in the sitcom movies of the period. The approach taken by George and Mildred in 1980 of adding a ludicrous twist to the regular fare - in this case, a hitman trying to kill George in a London hotel - is even more unusual (and that's the least of the problems suffered by this worst of the TV spin-offs, in which all expense seems to have been spared and where Yootha Joyce was quite literally dying on her feet).

More common is the idea of sending the cast away somewhere - a concept which in retrospect is particularly bizarre in a sitcom, where the setting is integral to the comedy, and where it's a cliche of the genre that the characters work best when trapped with one another. Holiday on the Buses, Steptoe and Son Ride Again!, Are You Being Served? and Please Sir! all follow the ill-considered path of sending the cast on holiday, and although both Steptoe and Please Sir! emerge with a reasonable amount of their reputations intact, credit for this goes to the strength of the original premise and the quality of the actors involved more than anything else. Are You Being Served! and Holiday on the Buses, on the other hand, collapse in a welter of jokes about humorous foreigners and middle aged lechers.

Which leaves only the very best sitcom spin-offs to finish.

Porridge
could be said also to have tried sending the core cast on holiday, although in this case that holiday involved escaping from prison! The writing is crisp and clever, Barker and Beckinsdale are as wonderful as ever and Dick Clement directs with aplomb. Even if there hadn't been a Porridge television series, this tale of two inmates breaking into prison would be fondly remembered as one of the better British movies of the 1970s. I could waffle on about Porridge for longer, but really - do yourself a favour and get the dvd.

While you're at it, do the same thing with the Dads Army movie. It may have been an unhappy experience for the cast** but little of that shows on screen, even if does flag a little towards the end. Demonstrating the process by which the Home Guard came into existence, the film is obviously helped by the brilliant ensemble cast, but the decision to re-tell the whole of the first TV series was a masterstroke which paid off handsomely. Again, highly recommended to any fan of the television show.

One last thing - lots of character actors turn up in numerous different spin-off movies, to the extent that watched one after another it appears that there were only about a dozen actors available in the seventies. Johnny Briggs (MATH, BTH), Bill Pertwee (MATH, DA), Jack Smethurst (MATH, PS, LTN), Carol Hawkins (BTH, PS), Patsy Rowlands (PS, BTH), Michael Robbins (MATH, OTB, TDUDP) and - showing a willingness to serve above and beyond the call of duty - the mighty Bill Maynard (MATH, BTH, S&S, TDUDP, plus the TV version of Frankie Howerd's Up Pompeii, sundry Carry Ons and Confessions of... movies galore). Without the safety net of these cut-price knock-offs of popular telly you wonder how some of this lot would have paid their mortgages...

Actually, one final last thing - how cool would it be if they were still making these movies? Imagine a big screen version of My Family where dentist Ben and his dysfunctional brood head for the Costa Del Sol, or where Ashley and Elaine from the Two of Us buy a rundown hotel in the countryside, with predictably hilarious results?

Very cool, that's how cool that would be.

* Should anyone have a copy, I would love to see the single pilot episode of the US version of Are You Being Served, Beane's of Boston
**
Primarily due to interference from the the studio who wanted to make it more cinematic rather than reflecting the TV series and hence recast Mavis Pike with a bigger name and moved filming to a new location. More specifically, there was a good deal of unrest caused by the fact that the director Norman Cohen was both not terribly good and was being told what to do on a daily basis by studio bosses who weren't even on site, and the manner in which rewrites were taking place outwith Croft and Perry's control.

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