Political Drama

Election day here in the UK, and I’m saying nothing about which of the dismal and despicable contenders I shall be voting for - if, indeed, any. Alwyn W Turner (whose book about the 1970s I mentioned here recently) sums it all up very eloquently on his excellent blog

But while I’ve been doing my best to ignore British politics, I’ve been very entertained lately by the U.S. variety - or at least by the version of it which appears in various TV dramas. So I thought I’d write about some of them instead. 

We’ve just (finally) started watching The West Wing, that every-day story of White House folk. I know it’s years and years old and a classic and everything, but I caught a bit of it when it was first broadcast and decided that it wasn’t for me. I was wrong, though, and now I’m thoroughly looking forward to watching the whole thing. 

The characters are great, the pace is fast, and the wisecrack-laden dialogue fizzes in a way that reminds me of His Girl Friday. Whenever they aren’t batting one-liners to and fro like tennis pros, the cast sum up the defects of each other’s characters in the sort of set-piece speech which American screenwriters do so well. It’s fabulous. But I can see why I turned up my nose at it all those years ago. There’s a certain amount of cynicism displayed by the aides and press officers who make up most of the cast, but the president, played by Martin Sheen, is presented as a secular saint, and about once an episode it all goes a bit soft focus and stirring music swells on the soundtrack while someone explains that America is a Beautiful Idea, or some such patriotic guff. I know that sort of thing plays well in the U.S, and not just with the right (The West Wing is achingly liberal). Over here, for some reason, we find it a bit embarrassing. It's hard to imagine a British Prime Minister being portrayed with such reverence.

A good example of the British view of politicians is House of Cards (1990).  Based on the novel by Michael Dobbs MP, it tells the story of Francis Urqhart, a loyal Conservative chief whip who, when the new Prime Minister goes back on a promise to make him Foreign Secretary, accepts the snub with apparent good grace, and then calmly and coldly sets about wreaking his revenge. It’s now been remade by Netflix in the US, with the action moved to Capitol Hill and Kevin Spacey in the role made famous by Ian Richardson (he’s called Francis Underwood in the new version). 

The remake is a class act, it really is; Spacey is supremely watchable, and I enjoyed seeing him plot and scheme his way through a Washington DC which seems to have been drained of all its warmer hues, an underlit, almost submarine city of marble and brushed steel, haunted by a wintry soundtrack. But it never achieves the real cruelty of the old BBC version, which was one of the most irredeemably black-hearted TV shows I’ve ever seen. The new House of Cards has more episodes to fill, and an eye on further seasons. It can’t help humanising its anti-hero. 

Also, it’s less theatrical than the original. Spacey keeps up Ian Richardson’s trick of addressing the camera as a co-conspirator, but the story seems to be trying harder to be plausible, and, as a consequence, it’s much less so - the melodramatic plot twists ring false. Added to which, as the second season wore on, I found it harder and harder to keep track of who was plotting to do what to whom, and why, and why I should care. 

Worst of all, somewhere beneath the Apple-advert sheen I think there may lurk the same hope that lights The West Wing - Frank Underwood might be a wrong ‘un, but America is still a Beautiful Idea.  They seem to think his resistible rise is a tragedy, when it should be a black comedy. I’ll keep watching, but I’m not convinced.

The Good Wife is a very different kettle of fish. I bought a box set after seeing people sing its praises on Twitter. For the first few episodes I thought I’d wasted my money - it seemed to be just a bland legal soap, starring that Julianna Margulies off of ER as a Chicago lawyer named Alisha Florrick, who reluctantly stands by her cheating District Attorney husband when he gets sent to prison on trumped-up charges. But it’s far more fun than it sounds. The main characters are all watchable enough, but its real strength lies in its semi-regular secondary characters, a cast of comically eccentric judges, lawyers and in-laws. 

Michael J Fox is in it, playing a wonderful devious scoundrel, as is Alan Cumming, who gives the prissiest performance this side of C3PO as the political advisor fighting to rebuild hubby’s career. Zach Grenier crops up as a sly, reptilian divorce lawyer, the great Stockard Channing arrives in a later season as our heroine’s prodigal mother, and Carrie Preston is a hoot as the ditzy but brilliant Elsbeth Tascione.  Archie Panjabi (from Bend It Like Beckham, another ER alumnus) is cool and charismatic as the law firm’s investigator, but the show doesn’t seem to know quite how to handle her - her storylines keep skittering off into ludicrous melodrama. 

But The Good Wife is good enough to cope with a bit of ludicrous melodrama - there’s so much going on, and you never know whether you’re in for a comic turn, a serious chin-stroking moment about some case clunkingly based on a real-life incident, or total soap opera lunacy. It’s all over the place - the plot doesn’t just twist, it makes U-turns, generally in an effort to avoid colliding with other plots which appear suddenly out of left field - but somehow it just works. I’m including it this round-up because it’s at least partly about politics, with Peter Florrick campaigning to get elected again as DA and then as state governor. I can’t tell if the writers of The Good Wife think America is a Beautiful Idea or not, but their version of American politics is a giddy parade of attack ads, leaked e-mails, sleaze, deviousness, backstabbing, and downright lies. I know I’m not comparing like with like, but it feels far more believable than House of Cards.

A Prix Enfantasie for Oliver & the Seawigs

Oliver and the Seawigs has won an award in Switzerland! It's the Prix Enfantasie, organised by Payot bookshops and the Swiss Institute for Youth, and Sarah McIntyre and I are very pleased about it! Here's her blog, with all the details. And here's a little video we made since we couldn't get to the award ceremony. Lots of people know McIntyre for her fabulous illustrations, but did you realise she can also throw a book more than 200 miles with pinpoint accuracy?

Nigel Terry: Morte D'Arthur


One of my online roles seems to be as an unofficial Keeper of the Flame for John Boorman's film Excalibur, which I've written about here, and here, and here. So I was saddened to learn this week of the death of its star, Nigel Terry. A west country lad and a superb actor, he made a magnificent Arthur, convincing and passionate all the way from callow youth to sorrowful old age.

When I first saw the film I imagined he would go on to star in dozens of other big movies, but although he was a fine Caravaggio a few years later in the Derek Jarman film, I lost track of him for many years after that, until the 1990s, when he began turning up from time to time on TV. He was Svidrigailov in a BBC adaptation of Crime and Punishment and Mr Boldwood in ITV's Far From The Madding Crowd, where he appeared alongside actor-turned-excellent-YA-author Andy Robb (who wrote on Facebook yesterday that he was 'one of the funniest men I've ever met - and possibly the most miserable bastard to walk the earth'. (He also turned up in a Dr Who episode - I must have missed that one.) And, although he seems to have been quite a private and reclusive man, he appeared along with the rest of the Excalibur cast in the Behind the Sword in the Stone documentary (which I wish I could link to, but it's still in search of a distribution deal).

Anyway, he was a fine actor, and he will always be King Arthur to me.

Here is a link to the Guardian's obituary.

Generation X-Wing

I've often used this blog to write about the books, films and TV shows which inspire my own stories, but last week, watching all the excitement about the trailer for The Force Awakens, I realised that I've never really got round one of the biggest inspirations of them all...

The first time I heard about Star Wars was also the first time I went to the cinema on my own. It was August 1977, I was eleven, and I had taken myself off to the Odeon on Brighton seafront to watch Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Before it started, up came a trailer for a new film. I've looked for it on YouTube, but I'm pretty sure the one on there isn't the one I saw (I'm guessing there was an alternative trailer for the British market).  For one thing, I distinctly remember a different cheesy tag line - "A Boy, a Girl, and a Galaxy of Adventure!"  More importantly, the YouTube version starts off (rather oddly), 'Somewhere in space, this may all be happening Right Now...' but the most striking thing for me about the Star Wars trailer was that it wasn't happening 'right now', it was set, 'A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...'

Until that precise moment, I'd never liked Science Fiction. I was an anxious child, and SF stories seemed to be full of  alien invasions, plagues, atomic wars and other Scary Stuff Which Might Actually Happen - I always carefully avoided them*. But if Star Wars was happening long ago and far away, I knew it was safe - as safe as the fantasy and history stories which I loved. So, watching the intriguing flurry of images flash by, I already knew that this was the film for me.

It wasn't for me yet, of course, because it didn't open in the UK until Christmas. But one wet Sunday that autumn I found this 'collector's edition' magazine in the news agent's at the end of Queen's Park Road

Heaven knows how I was able to afford it, since it cost 95 whole p, but somehow I found the money, and hurried home to pore over its collection of grainy stills and behind-the-scenes interviews. I particularly remember the Ralph McQuarrie production paintings, so beautiful and so oddly different from the final film, the gap between them hinting at the vast amounts of design effort which had gone into the models and costumes.

I also learned what the story was all about - it had been a complete mystery until then. By the time I actually got to see the film (February '78 - I think it was a birthday outing) I knew exactly what was going to happen, but I don't remember that spoiling my enjoyment. I was just delighted to see all the stuff I'd read about and seen in stills and drawings actually moving.

Like The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars created a whole world, and packed it with so much detail that it felt real. I was fascinated by the costumes and sets - by the Jawas' rusty sand crawler and the weird aliens half-glimpsed in the cantina. I was enough of a history geek even then to recognise some of the  references in John Mollo's costume designs.**

My favourites were the Stormtroopers.Whose idea was it to make their plastic armour white? It seemed so un-military, but it worked. They looked like an army of skeletons, and their helmets - part gas mask, part stahlhelm, - are superb.  The sequels and prequels kept throwing new stormtroopers into the mix, and the Force Awakens trailer shows some cool updated ones, but they're still not as cool or up-to-date as the originals, which I reckon are unimprovable.

It was also the classiest fantasy movie I'd ever seen. I was too young to spot the references to John Ford and Kurosawa, but I loved the lush Holst and Wagner borrowings of the John Williams score, and even I could see that Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were in a different league to the rest of the cast. (Peter Cushing is a superb villain: I missed him in the second film, and when the Emperor himself turned up in the third, he wasn't remotely as impressive; he needed to be played by Vincent Price or Christopher Lee.)

Best of all were the desert landscapes of the film's opening half hour. Here was an imaginary world as spectacular as the ones which books conjured in my imagination. I loved the widescreen vistas of Tatooine, with its double sunsets and mud-brick spaceport. I always felt a bit sad when the Millennium Falcon finally blasts off into orbit. The grey colour palettes of the Death Star work well all the time they are being intercut with the browns and yellows of the desert scenes, but once the whole story move there something is lost; it turns into a lot of running around in corridors, and a certain desperation creeps into the action sequences (why does a brand new space station have a garbage compactor full of rusty metal where an actual underwater monster lives?). It picks up again afterwards, with the rebel base in the jungle temple and the final battle, but my favourite bit was always the desert.

More Ralph McQuarrie concept art.
Star Wars was the first thing I'd ever liked that other people were into as well. I knew a few people who had read Tolkein, my previous obsession, but at my school they were rare breeds, and Middle Earth didn't really seem like part of mainstream culture in those days. But Star Wars was so popular that it's UK opening was featured on the TV news.

Queuing for Star Wars.  Photo from flashbak.com
Star Wars was everywhere, and you could buy jigsaws and stickers and comics and pencil cases (which I promptly did). You could collect Star Wars bubble gum cards. It was so popular that it even put an end to World War 2. Before Star Wars, schoolboys played Brits vs Germans in the playground, watched Colditz and Where Eagles Dare, and made model kits of Spitfires and Messerschmidt 109s.  After it, we played rebels vs stormtroopers and watched Blake's Seven and Battlestar Galactica. (I had grown out of model kits by then, but if I hadn't, I would undoubtedly have been gluing together wonky X-wing and TIE fighters.)

Later that year I was on a beach in Guernsey, making a den out of bits of driftwood while my mum and dad sunbathed. I found a long strand of thick, frayed rope. As I dragged it across the sand to where my construction was taking shape, I looked down at it, and then up at the rocky cliffs, and imagined that it was the tail of one of those creatures which the Sand People in Star Wars use, and that I was riding one across the wastes of Tatooine.  I had just turned twelve. It's the last time I can remember playing make-believe like that.

Guernsey, 1978
I was growing up. Inspired by Star Wars, I was reading and watching all the Science Fiction I could get my hands on. Perhaps that's why the later films had nothing like the same effect on me. When The Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980 I thought it was OK, but Luke and Leia turning out to be siblings struck me as creaky even then - I was more impressed by the supporting feature. By the time Return of the Jedi was released I was at sixth form and immensely sophisticated: I enjoyed it in a nostalgic way, as a reminder of something I'd loved when I was young.

And after that, I sort of forgot about Luke Skywalker and co. But years later, when I started trying to write my own sci-fi/fantasy story, that Star Wars feeling was one of the things I was aiming for.

No sooner had I finished writing this than I noticed that Gareth Powell has also been inspired to write down his own Star Wars memories - you can find them here.

*The big SF movies of the 'seventies before Star Wars included things like Rollerball, Death Race 2000, Logan's Run, Damnation Alley and the Planet of the Apes sequels - not exactly sunny visions of the future.

**The historical reference points helped Star Wars to age much better than films which tried to look purely futuristic. When I caught it on TV in the mid-nineties the only things which had really dated were the men's hairstyles, and even they have probably been back in fashion since.