What A Mess



In 1997 Inverness was lovely.


People who had never visited it used to regard it with the same idle, exotic quasi-curiosity that they would Tipperary say, or Timbuktu, or a minor moon of Neptune. To be fair people who had visited Inverness basically regarded it the same way going on only to add that a moon of Neptune is slightly easier and marginally cheaper to get to. That suited us though. If we had had a town slogan at the time it would have been “Inverness! It’s probably not your sort of thing.”


1997 is the year I moved here. I came from Aberdeen, itself a pretty amazing city, and I was struck instantly and thereafter repeatedly at how civilised Inverness was. A town of between thirty and forty thousand people at the time (now sixty-two thousand) it was built around a charming historical old centre with some slightly less charming cuboid clapboard sleep-places on the upslopes of the outskirts. But this was only the start of the story, because Inverness was and is the capital of the Highlands and thus serves an area approximately the size of one and a half Belgiums or eight trillion football pitches. (Actual figures may differ.) The cultural breadth and depth was staggering.


When I bought my flat here the estate agent warned me confidentially that I might want to think twice because it was in a bit of a rough area. That was eighteen years ago. I am still in that flat and I can tell you that the crime rate is lower here than it is in Hobbiton.


It was my job that brought me to Inverness. I worked at the time for a national bookselling chain that I feel I should be coy about naming. Imagine a cross, if you can, between Roger Waters and the Rolling Stones. Yeah? Are you with me? Good. So anyway, what we used to do in the Rolling Rogers bookshop was good old, down-home, country-style retail.


Young people won’t believe this but the way it was last century was that you had a big building full of stuff that you had bought for a price. People came to your building, often from one and a half Belgiums away, and bought the stuff from you at a higher price. You made money. The producers of the stuff made money. the consumers of the stuff got their stuff.


Even at the time though, this was starting to look like a silly way of doing things. In bookselling, and in everything else-selling there were fundamentally too many people in between the content providers and the consumers. There were, in this specific example, editors, publishers, printers, distributors, lorry drivers and greedy, greedy bookshop staff all taking their cut along the way, and all slowing things down.


It was a system that couldn’t have lasted much longer than it did, particularly not once the internet started stubbornly refusing to be uninvented, but we will get on to that in a minute.


An additional problem arose from the scrapping of the Net Book Agreement in 1994. The NBA was basically resale price maintenance for books introduced in 1900. It meant that the price that was printed on a book was the price you paid wherever you bought it. This kind of mechanism seems quite egalitarian to those of us who value writing and reading. Indeed the Restrictive Practices Court agreed in 1962 when it ruled that the NBA benefited the book trade by allowing publishers to subsidise important but less commercial authors from the profits of their bestsellers. This kind of price-fixing is an anathema to the marketeers though. It churns the stomachs of the people who call books product units and who confuse cheapness with value.


As the NBA disappeared, swept away by the 1990s political attitudes to free trade, there was a momentary flush of optimism through the bookselling community, perhaps born of desperation. Hurrah, we cheered hollowly. Booksellers now have to compete in the marketplace. This can only be good news for customers who will henceforth be able to buy their books cheaper. Yay, supply and demand! Yay, the market!


Of course what happened is that supermarkets cottoned on to using books as loss leaders and we ended up with the ridiculous situation where nobody selling any Harry Potter books made any money out of it apart from J.K. Rowling. Bookshops had to sell them at cost otherwise they wouldn’t sell any at all. And they had to maintain market share because otherwise they would lose their customers for good together with even the slightest prospect of future profit. This state of affairs reached peak absurdity during the release of the last few Harry Potter books. As Tesco stores were selling the books at below cost price it made more sense for bookshops to buy their stock from Tesco than from the publisher, and then sell them on to their own customers.


Tens of millions of pounds through the tills. Net profit, about ten pence. And they had to pay for everything out of that 10p: their booksellers, their electricity bills, their dinner of value beans on toast made from value bread, probably bought from Tesco sickeningly enough.


Harry Potter


So bookselling was a dead trade walking even as I moved to Inverness. There were glory days though. A brief golden period when we thought that the deep range of a specialist bookseller was of more interest to a book buyer than a shallow, cheap supermarket shelf. That didn’t work though. Book buyers became accustomed to the no-profit deep-discount loss leaders in Tesco and couldn’t understand why we weren’t offering the same deal on small press poetry anthologies and niche fiction. In the blink of an eye literature became abysmally devalued.


So much for the irresistible force of the supermarkets then, but what of the other irresistible force? The internet.


Briefly in the book trade there existed the heroic but misguided notion that an informed bookseller standing behind a till would somehow be able to recommend you things better than an Amazon algorithm could. Honestly, we actually believed that for a while. And there was also the sweet conceit that a recherché form of boutique bookselling might live on as an aesthetically preferable alternative to shopping online at home in your pants. But people are people, and time is scarce, and your pants are great pants, and the internet is easy, so sadly my shop died.


That’s what happens when two irresistible forces meet a moveable, killable object.


It would have happened anyway, but it happened slightly quicker than it needed to in Inverness, and here is my understanding of how that happened.


The unchallenged assumption of everyone involved in town centre management in the early 2000s that I talked to was that Inverness was unsinkable, and who’s ever seen an iceberg anyway? Not me. I don’t think they even exist.


So whilst money was sloshing around and an ideal opportunity existed to beautify central Inverness, support local business, and consolidate its tourist attractions what actually happened was that the council left the town centre to fend for itself and chased big business instead. A huge out of town retail park was built. A twenty-four hour Tesco opened. There was a massive Borders. A Comet. A major popcorn-seller with a clutch of associated cinema screens. The people rejoiced. At least those with cars did. And lovers of bleak concrete expanses. They were pretty pleased too I imagine.


People would come in to my bookshop in the city centre to tell me how much better than us the out of town Borders was. You could buy coffee there. And newspapers. And stationery. And even books if you wanted. What the gloaters didn’t know, and what I didn’t know at the time, was that Borders were being given hugely favourable terms on their rent and rates.


We weren’t, but I’m not here to boo-hoo about that.


Inverness had a deserved reputation at that time for being riotously expensive. I remember our head office being surprised that it cost more to advertise in the Inverness Courier than it did to put the same advert in the whole of the rest of the world’s Guardian. We certainly saw that high cost reflected in our monthly outgoings. The rent and rates were dizzyingly high, the profits on the books were dismally low, and the profitability of the shop eventually dwindled to nothing at all.


Luckily booksellers are brave and mighty, and also very attractive and sexually well endowed, so we just took it on the chin. C’est la vie, we said, educatedly. Six swings and half a dozen roundabouts, innit? All’s fair in love and war. We could not compete with the big boys so we went to the wall. That’s the law of the jungle, albeit some sort of weird jungle that has walls and swings and roundabouts in it, and where everyone speaks French.


Fast forward a bit though and it transpired that Borders’ business model was not particularly robust either. That whole chain disappeared, as did Comet. Even Tesco appear slightly more strapped for cash now than they used to. The retail park currently looks grimmer than ever, and it’s always looked quite grim. It is not a place that you go to for fun, and I am left to wonder what would Inverness town centre be like now if, fifteen years ago, the investment had been made there rather than a mile up the A96.


Because Inverness city centre is a shocking mess as it stands. It’s like that chaotic, dystopian version of Hill Valley from one of the futures in Back To The Future Part II. There is an enclave of bright light and warmth in the Eastgate Shopping Centre like Elysium in that film Elysium, but it only serves to highlight how squalid the rest of town is.


There is so much deep beauty in Inverness that it makes me weep metaphorical, non-real tears at how grimy and stinking and decayed we have let it become. I used to be proud to show my home to visitors, but now I dread to think what people think the first time they step off the bus or the train.


There is an air of a place that has just let itself go. The municipal equivalent of a man alone in a bedsit living amid the detritus of fast food packages and empty bottles and cans.


In 2015 Inverness is not, in any analysis, lovely.


Failte gu Inbhir Nis! Welcome to Inverness!

Failte gu Inbhir Nis! Welcome to Inverness!


But I only brought frankincense and myrrh

But I only brought frankincense and myrrh


Gold! Always believe in your soul

Gold! Always believe in your soul


Crack Generator

Crack Generator

Ladbrokes & Paddy Power with a William Hill just over the road. Not enough choice? Worry not. There are two more branches of Brokelads just round the corner

Ladbrokes & Paddy Power with a William Hill just over the road. Not enough choice? Worry not. There are two more branches of Brokelads just round the corner

Thins and Oddbins. Don't bother looking for them. They're not there any more

Thins and Oddbins. Don’t bother looking for them. They’re not there any more




Most of the problems are not unique to Inverness of course and I do not mean to lay all of the blame at the feet of short-sighted city centre management over a decade ago, much though I think they could have helped. In fact there is every sign now that the council are keen to renovate in the city centre where they can.


If I am going to point my blame-thrower, and I feel certain that I am, then it would be squarely in the direction of capitalism. The whole inadequate, wormy orthodoxy of capitalism. Seriously, how much longer are we going to have to pretend that the free market is the answer to everything, and that unregulated competition somehow contributes to the gaiety of nations?


I write this on the day that Ed Davey, the Lib Dem Energy Minister of this purulent government, is smearing his sneery face all over the news telling us that we are howling lunatics for not changing our energy suppliers on a monthly basis. I have paraphrased him to a degree. In doing this he is echoing the disdain of the man I had round a few weeks ago from Scottish Gas to service my gas central heating who was frankly incredulous that I bought my gas from his gas-selling organisation. His point, and Ed Davey’s, is that I could save two hundred pounds a year by paying attention to my gas supplier. Now two hundred pounds is real money. You would have to be the howling lunatic that Ed Davey didn’t quite say to turn down two hundred quid.


My point, not a good one perhaps and certainly not one I made to my gas man for reasons of personal meekness, goes roughly along the lines of I DON’T BELIEVE YOU!


My minuscule adventures in trying to change supplier for anything have resulted in a change in my personal outgoings that was basically undetectable. And it came at the cost of several hours of my time talking to pirates, wide boys and nincompoops when I could have been eating chilli, listening to Bob Mould albums and telling my partner how beautiful she is, which is very beautiful indeed seeing as you ask.


I am not the sort of person to whom two hundred pounds means nothing, but if the promise is of an imaginary two hundred pounds, and it comes at the cost of hours of my time then you know what you can take. And you’d better make it a flying one.


This multiplicity of suppliers is not a choice of wildly differing alternatives that has been given to me to benefit my life, however much it is dressed up to look like that. This is a bunch of middlemen crow-barring their way in between me the gas user and at the other end the gas supplier, all fighting for pennies and treating me like a slot machine.


I honestly liked it better when services existed to serve us rather than the other way around. I don’t want a choice of half a dozen rubbish things that are exactly the same. I want one trustworthy supplier, state regulated, that I can rely on to provide me with what I pay for and that will treat me with fairness and respect. And I know this boat has sailed, but God I pine for the days when you got your electricity from the Electricity Board and your gas from the Gas Board, and when your phone rang it was a friend or relation rather than a gobby barnacle on society’s undercarriage trying to cajole you into claiming compensation for some fictional accident or vividly-hallucinated PPI entitlement.


Now it’s all bonkers. Your electric comes from the gas people, your phone comes from the telly people and you have to download gas from the internet. No wonder everything feels so unstable all the time. We, the people who should have the power in these transactions, are concussed into submission by businesses whose model teeters on the brink of being art terrorism.


As an illustration of how wonky and skewed our economic system has become have a look at the basic retail paradigm now, as seen on the streets of Inverness and everywhere else really. It is the complete inverse of retail the way it used to be when you swapped your money for the retailer’s things. The only thing on sale in most of the shops on the High Street now is money, lovely yummy money for people who do not have any. Partly this is in the form of bookies who will sell you money for other money (at significantly disadvantageous rates it should be noted), but mostly it is in the shape of pawn-brokers or whatever we call these enterprises these days who will sell you money for things.


That’s shops now. You take the things that, like a latter day Womble, you have found. You know, the things that the everyday folk have just left lying around the insides of their houses behind locked doors in the middle of the night, and you use these things to buy money in shops.


That’s mad.


It’s nice for the people who are selling the money. they get to add a huge mark up often selling a few pence for as much as a pound, so the money tends to accrete where the money already is. But is that really sustainable? Is that a long-term model? This is not a new idea, that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor, but I have never been so aware of it. It is naked and unabashed. There is a last days of the Roman Empire shamelessness about it in fact. Grab your fiddle and your asbestos socks, and let’s see what happens next.


In an important graph that I made up whilst sitting in my economic think tank I have calculated that at some point next year there will be no money left. It will have achieved singularity and will all belong to one solitary, laughing person in the Cayman Islands.


I would like to make the following modest proposal: that we declare that person to be the WINNER OF CAPITALISM and that we allow her or him to retire gracefully, undefeated. Maybe give them a nice trophy or something from the Inverness Trophy Centre. And at that point we share all the money out equally and we start all over again, but this time with a system that is less ball-bombingly bad.


Trophy Centre






A not necessarily very interesting postscript: Ian Rankin signed a book for me not long after I moved to Inverness. In the inscription he quoted from a 1979 song by punk band The Prats: “Inverness, what a mess.”


Here is a link to it.


Inverness - What a Mess



Attack eyebrows


August 26 was Women’s Equality Day.

Cor, typical women, eh fellas? Hogging all the equality. When do we get to be equal? Never, I expect.

It is a commemoration in the USA of the day in 1920 that the vote was granted to women under the terms of the Nineteenth Amendment. Good times. 1920 seems quite late to me, but we were only a couple of years ahead of that and our Representation of the People Act 1918 was in retrospect insanely restrictive. Women could vote yes, but only if they were over thirty. And a member, or married to a member of the Local Government Register. Or if they were a graduate voting in a University constituency. It stopped short of “must also be in the possession of a penis and really, really like James Bond films”, but only just. And because James Bond films hadn’t been invented yet.

Whilst America was getting on with Women’s Equality Day, over here in the country currently known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland August 26 was less noble. It was the day that the Better Together campaign, who are promoting the No vote in the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum, released their advert “The woman who made up her mind”.

(Watch it here if you’re hardy.)

There was an axiom in the advertising industry in the 1980s that if you, for whatever reason, were unable to make a brilliant commercial then your next best option was to make a spine-chillingly, anatomy-wiltingly bad one. The Shake n’Vac Principle, it was known as.

Is that what Better Together are aiming for here? An infamy so grotesque that at least, after the exact details of it have faded, the name of the perpetrators will linger in the brain, maybe resulting in a few accidental votes.

The advert has been comprehensively satirised online and I don’t propose to go over all that. The hashtag #PatronisingBTLady on Twitter will take you where you need to go. The serious bottom line for Better Together is how they have failed to win over people like me.

I am their demographic. They should have been aiming at me.

Born in England, and still sounding very English, I have lived and worked in Scotland since 1992. My family and my roots still lie south of the border, but I love Scotland. I adore the way I have been allowed to become Scottish by assimilation. The people, the landscape, the culture, the political progressiveness and tendency towards equality are what have kept me in Scotland long after my original reason for moving up here disappeared.

This is my home now. I enjoy the benefits and I contribute. I feel very included.

But two years ago I was basically a No voter. I was pro-Union. My scepticism about the SNP (national socialism, hmmm, something about that phrase) had evaporated in the light of their excellent performance in the Scottish Parliament, but I still didn’t support independence. I couldn’t see the point of it.

So what has changed?

Principally I started talking to people and I started reading things from both sides of the debate and what became starkly clear almost instantly was that there is no reason – not one single reason – not to be independent.

I have listened patiently to the No arguments and I have heard nothing that isn’t fear-mongering, negative, coercive and borderline abusive bullying. It frequently contradicts itself. I am particularly amused by their argument that Scotland is somehow both a parasitic entity and a highly-valued part of the union.

Gradually I started to become aware that the BBC, theoretically an impartial broadcaster, was showing a slant in its reporting as its own vested interests started to press down. The day before the new Doctor Who episode aired last weekend. for instance, the BBC carried a not-news story that people in Scotland would “probably” still be able to watch Doctor Who if it became an independent country.

Probably? This was at the exact same time that the show’s producers were conducting a world tour introducing Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman to Mexico, Brazil and Australia. Scotland is still going to be part of the world. Under what circumstances would we not be able to see Doctor Who? If there isn’t a post-independence renegotiation of publicly funded broadcasting then surely Scotland will still be free to buy in content like any other foreign market. So why was the BBC introducing a note of doubt at that point if not to destabilise and antagonise the floating voter? The thing is I don’t like being pushed around, and I suspect I am not alone.

In my experience the tone of the debate at a personal level and one-to-one on the internet has been considerate and calm. People who will be affected by the decision, whichever way it goes on September 18, understand that this is an emotional issue and that whether it’s Yes or No that finally prevails there will be a hell of a lot of repair work to do in the immediate aftermath.

The old media have been less measured unfortunately, and now that the reality of the situation looms I am beginning to see a lot of reaction from England that goes along the lines of: Well I don’t really fancy losing Scotland, I hope they vote No.

Two points here:

1) In what sense do you currently have Scotland? Don’t you think that a people’s decision (if it happens) to become self-determining should trump your vague desire to own something you don’t really seem to know too much about?

2) WE WILL STILL BE HERE! You will still be able to drive to all the people, places and things you think you like so much about us. The difference is we will be making our own decisions about how we spend our pocket money, and who we have over to stay.

When I worked in Leeds in the 1980s I travelled up to Scotland for the weekend every couple of weeks and was constantly aghast, and slightly embarrassed, at the number of times quite well-educated colleagues would ask me whether or not I needed a passport, and did I have to change my money? It’s 200 miles I would tell them. Go up and have a look. I don’t think any of them did.

But even in ignorance of the realities of Scottish life a misplaced sense of proprietorship persists. And the absurdity of it is rarely acknowledged. When David Bowie used the platform of the Brit Awards to urge Scotland to stay, the way you would talk to a scampishly disobedient pup, he was applauded. Look, said Better Together. We’ve got David Bowie and you’ve only got some bloke out of Hue & Cry.

The fact that David Bowie is an Englishman living in New York and that the bloke out of Hue & Cry was born in Scotland, lives in Scotland and has spent his life working in Scotland and therefore actually knows what he was talking about somehow slipped the media’s attention.

This is not everyone in England of course. Far from it. I have been moved by how many people have regarded Scotland with envious eyes, and have been able nonetheless to say, Go on Scotland. Fucking go for it. We would.

And that brings me to my final point.

Who wouldn’t want to be independent?

Whatever you think of Westminster, and I personally think it is at best stultified, but is more generally a cataclysmic collection of treacherous, self-interested, black-hearted, simpering Fauntleroys and cackling Harkonnens, whatever you think of it you cannot believe that is good. Nor even that it is the least bad way of doing things.

In their excellent book The Spirit Level (2009) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett use masses of quantitative data to show over and over again that everybody benefits from a more equal society. Inequalities bring obvious disadvantages to those at the sticky end, but they make society worse for those at the affluent end too, counter-intuitively.

In the same way, the current union does nobody any favours. Scottish independence is not a threat to anyone in Scotland, quite the contrary. But also it doesn’t threaten anyone in what would remain of the UK. Without a Scottish political drag England and Wales get to express themselves much more democratically. The change, challenging though it would inevitably be, would be good for all of us.

I understand inertia. I understand resistance to change. Change is uncomfortable and scary, but that is where growth lies. Personally, socially and globally. It would be arrogant to say that the world is watching Scotland, but there are certainly parts of it that are taking an interest, and it is only when looking at the referendum from that perspective that I got my big shock.

There is nobody out there who, if placed in a similar position, would say “No thanks. I can’t be bothered.” If Scotland votes No I think there will be a lot of people internationally who will regard the country as weaker and less vigorous than they ever thought. But that isn’t important.

If Scotland votes No there will also be the difficult job of explaining to subsequent generations toiling under whatever non-devolved reforms the freshly empowered shower at Westminster bring in precisely why they did not seize the one opportunity they had to throw off the shackles. But that’s not important either.

The important thing is that the referendum offers an opportunity to be self-supporting. To be our own people rather than beholden to the shambolic blackguards who currently get to tell us what’s what.

Forget everyone else. If you have a vote look at yourself. How much responsibility are you willing to take for yourself? Some or none?

Nightmare In Silver


She was very beguiling and interesting, this girl I went out with once: pointed, glittery and sharp. Bladed. A scythe of a woman. Good in a harvest. Bit of knobbly wood sticking out of her. Feared by the elderly and infirm.

Not those last three.

What she liked to do when we were out for a meal was this: during the starter she would talk excitedly about the oncoming main course; during the main course she would anticipate dessert; during dessert she would be planning future meals.

I don’t know what she’s doing now, but if it is film journalism then I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

As I sat in Iron Man 3 last week it did strike me that the actual seeing of a film, the process of lolloping out to the cinema, renting a chair and then watching the thing one frame at a time or however they do it in these complicated digital days, is now the least significant part of the process from the industry’s point of view.

The Iron Man 3 screening I went to was the earliest one available in Inverness and yet, even as I slithered around on my leathery VIP seat trying not to get stuck in the gigantic pop-cup hole in the armrest, Iron Man 3 was already a bit passé, if one were to go by press coverage. The very femto-second the movie was actually available for public inspection it abruptly became of no interest to film journalists it seemed. They were already getting fizzy about next week’s Star Trek Into Darkness.

Bizarrely, the next week when I watched Star Trek Into Darkness on its opening day I again felt behind the times. The bigger news that day was that the trailer for The World’s End (due in July) had just been posted on that internet.

And there I always am, trying to enjoy a brand new thing whilst being exhorted on all sides to ignore the brand new thing because there’s something even newer on the way. Oh, if only it would hurry up.

Defocused temporal perception is all well and good if you are a Sirius Cybernetics Corporation Happy Vertical People Transporter, but it is less useful if you are a barely functional simpleton like me. I am just about equipped to live in the moment, but anything other than that I find depleting and harmful. When hungry, be hungry. When eating, eat. That’s the sort of thing I aspire to. It’s not quite The Power Of Now, but then I am no Eckhart Tolle. I don’t even look like him.

Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

Not Eckhart Tolle

Not Eckhart Tolle

Not Eckhart Tolle

Not Eckhart Tolle

I find it hard at the best of times to remain in the living present. I don’t know how your consciousness works, but I think mine is, in broad terms, an aggregation of a fancifully remembered past and a wildly approximated future. There is no way of apprehending the fleeting moment of now before it becomes then. The past is just memories. The future is just potentialities. And irritatingly enough there is no present for the consciously aware to cling to. It’s all very frustrating.

So, to a degree we each extend into the past and future, however immediate we are, but blimey some people take it to extremes, don’t they?

I live in a country where, because of where I was born and how I speak, I am occasionally held personally responsible for some stuff that went down several hundred years ago. There are some people, a trivial minority, who are that deeply in thrall to the past.

And when I watched Star Trek Into Darkness it took right up to the end credits for me to realise that there were going to be no surprises. Everything in the film had already been blurted out to me online over the past year by people who seem to live permanently in thrall to the future.

Iron Man 3 managed something of a coup by keeping a narrative twist under its curvy metal hat for the duration of its pre-publicity. No such luck with Star Trek though. It was all completely, dismayingly familiar the first time I saw it. Into Darkness is a good film. I just didn’t enjoy the experience of going to see it particularly much.

The film makers aren’t that bothered I would imagine. The anticipatory build up is where a movie’s reputation is mainly established. Then the long home entertainment afterlife is where the money is. That minuscule intermediate spell where the film just actually is a film is a bit of an embarrassment to them, one senses.

It is the modern way of things.

As with the films, so with Doctor Who.

I am finding it increasingly difficult to avoid internet speculation about next week’s season finale, The Name Of The Doctor, and November’s fiftieth anniversary special. There seems to be no way of blocking it and this irks me slightly. The spoiler-blurters are not like kids who go truffling for their own Christmas presents in the yuletide run up. They are like kids who find out what your presents are and then burst into your home screaming the information at the tops of their lungs.

All the other bits of their lungs too I should think. I don’t know. I’m not a lung doctor.

Their excuse of “Well you didn’t have to listen to/read what I had to say” does not suffice in this situation. It is the spoiliest of spoiling. I wish people would appreciate what has passed, relish what is happening now, and decorously await future developments. But, alas, I am old, and not in charge of the world.

There was a small amount of spoilering with Nightmare In Silver. A couple of recipients of the preview discs, including the Radio Times reviewer, were quite negative before the rest of us even got a chance to see it. There was an interview in which the script-writer Neil Gaiman became slightly defensive too, and the sulphurous suggestion of failure began to cling to the episode. The end result of all this was that those of us who just watch the programme for the first time as it is broadcast, the bottom of the heap guys, never got a chance to see it clean. It had been stamped with the reject stamp before we even opened the box.

This reminds me of the kickings that the movies John Carter and Prometheus received last year. A couple of folk got in early with some snark. A posse got rounded up. High horses were mounted. And by the time the poor bastards got released in the cinemas they were dead films walking. There will be reassessments later. Commentators of the future will wonder why the majority of contemporary viewers were so scathing. It has happened before. Apocalypse Now, The Shining, Scarface, Blade Runner. And that’s just off the top of my head.

Approximately twelve inches north of the top of my lungs.

What I would like, in fact what my glorious new Reich will insist upon, is for everybody to just take a deep breath, actually have a look at whatever they are reviewing (the thing itself, not their preconceptions of the thing) and establish a bit of context before going off on one.

Nightmare In Silver is a great episode.

The return of the Cybermen was not a thing I had been pining for even slightly, but I am glad it was done now, and I am particularly glad it was done this way. They seem to be an interstellar race once more, and no longer a domestic appliance invented by a parallel universe version of him off of Only Fools And Horses.

Their extinction, save for one tiny outpost, brought back welcome memories of the tin pot soldiers from Revenge Of The Cybermen (1975), a story whose reputation is only as slight as it is because of the sheer majesty of the stories surrounding it.

Of the abundant other past story references my favourite was the return of the Cyberplanner from The Wheel In Space (1968).

Adorable Doctor Who touches included the return of the matronly Clara, allowing her to bring back a bravado to proceedings, one that was noticeably absent from the child-free Cold War, for example. I also revelled in Matt Smith’s performance once again, and was grateful to see it emphatically illustrated that he is the eleventh Doctor, and that the previous ten are the ones we are familiar with. So let’s stop worrying about that now, shall we?

Beyond the requirements of Who however what I most loved about this episode was how much of a Neil Gaiman story it was. Much more so than his previous script The Doctor’s Wife.

There were more characters than we have had for a while in a single episode, but they were all adroitly managed. The kids (the clever boy who turns out to be a bit thick and the stroppy girl who works everything out) were exactly the sort of heterodoxical individuals you get in a Gaiman story.

Warwick Davis’ dignified portrayal of a leader in self-imposed exile, possibly the perpetrator of a necessary atrocity, is a beautiful touch too. It’s a delicate filigree of character work, far removed from most TV drama.

It was good to see characters bedding down for a good night’s sleep too. That’s a Gaiman thing, and we don’t see enough of it in Doctor Who. Jo gets some kip in The Daemons. Nyssa has a nice nap in Kinda, though that’s more to do with being surplus to narrative requirements rather than an actual plot point. There must be others.

When I praise Neil Gaiman, and I do this quite a lot, I do it almost entirely with reference to his series of Sandman comic books in the eighties and nineties. This is still an extraordinary work, transcending its apparently base origins to incorporate myth and classical literature in an astonishing, confident, novel way.

As a young man I was driven to write a letter to the comic’s publishers in a strangled attempt to explain just how brilliant Sandman 50 (Ramadan) was. They were kind enough to publish it and, even though the letter got edited rather clumsily to take out some spoilers I had inadvertently stumbled across, it still remains one of the three coolest things I have ever been involved with.

(Interestingly, writing a letter to a comic was the only way of publicly articulating an opinion at that level in the nineties. The downside was that it took three months for your observations to see the light of day. The upside was that not so many people could add a comment underneath comparing you to Hitler.)

Scan 16

The single most Sandman-esque thing about Nightmare In Silver though may not, in fact, be a Gaiman touch. It seems more like a happy confluence of Gaiman themes with Steven Moffat’s arc for this season. It is when the Cybermen point out to the Doctor that in erasing himself from history he is still definable by the gaps that he has left behind. This is exactly the starting point of the Sandman story.

In the early issues of the comic we see a world suffering because Morpheus has been removed from it. The Golden Age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, is even explained retroactively as being the universe’s response to something that it knows is missing. And it is an ongoing aspect of the series that Morpheus himself is often absent from the narrative running through his comic.

This does seem a little like Moffat-era Who, with its accentuation of the supporting characters whilst the title figure remains mythically in the background.

A few things that went by quite quickly so I wasn’t sure. Was that the blowfish in a sports car from Torchwood? And did they really have Ansible class communicators?

I am very happy with all of this.








Tim Hunter or Harry Potter?


Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS/The Crimson Horror



Philip Jose Farmer is to be applauded for many great auctorial achievements, one of the jauntiest being his Wold Newton sequence of books.

Introduced in the 1972 novel Tarzan Alive, Farmer’s core idea is that a meteorite falling in Wold Newton, Yorkshire in 1795 irradiated a coachful of passing travellers. The descendants of these travellers were, as a result, uniquely endowed and included Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, Doc Savage, Peter Wimsey, Phileas Fogg, Allan Quatermain, Raffles, Bulldog Drummond, Richard Hannay, Professor Challenger, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, James Bond, Travis McGee and many others.

It prefigures and has clearly influenced Kim Newman’s spirited Anno Dracula series as well as Alan Moore’s cussed, helical League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book.

Farmer also created Riverworld. I pretty much love him.

A similar catalysis to the one provided by the Wold Newton meteorite is observable in the real world in a legendary 1974 Halloween TV screening of Carry On Screaming.

It seems that every curious and morbidly inclined person of my approximate age saw it (including, independently, all four members of The League Of Gentlemen), and it sent a nerdy generation of us, already under the influence of Doctor Who, off on a search which would lead us to discover Hammer films, Quatermass, the Universal monster movies, The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, Blood On Satan’s Claw, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs and so forth.

The fallout of that single showing of Carry On Screaming, I remain convinced, influenced the direction of British genre broadcasting way more than Star Wars ever did. And this clutch of Doctor Who episodes bears witness to that pretty spectacularly.

Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS opens like a private sector version of Aliens, but rapidly shrugs off this hard SF carapace in favour of a late Victorian/early Edwardian phantasmagoria in the idiom of H.G. Wells or (as alluded to in the episode title) Jules Verne.

There is a lot to love in Journey: the repartee between Clara and the Doctor (once they are reunited); the sinister lighting schemes and skewed camera angles; the defocused, agonised monsters which reminded me so much of the discorporating Eddie Jessup in Altered States willing himself back into existence. But, incidental pleasures aside, Journey To the Heart Of The TARDIS is by an order of magnitude the weakest episode of the series so far.

(As a side note, Altered States is a key movie of the eighties, often overlooked. If you haven’t seen it you absolutely must. Or we can’t be friends any more.)





Writer Steve Thompson, as with his earlier endeavour The Curse Of The Black Spot (2011), fails to distinguish his supporting characters sufficiently. The Van Baalen brothers’ motivation is all over the place, their dialogue is awful, and I do not buy for one microsecond all that stuff about Tricky thinking he is an android. It simply doesn’t work.

The overuse of self-actuating, circular plot devices is a bit of an eye-roller too. It is sort of clever that the monsters are Clara and the Van Baalen brothers, and that the act of escaping from the monsters causes their creation. But to couch that twist in a story whose denouement involves interfering with the past so that events never happen is really pretty feeble.

It’s a shocking cop-out that ending. One that makes you wonder why there have been any stories at all over the last fifty years, if that’s really an option: going back to the beginning and preventing the narrative’s inciting incident. And to then stick on some half-hearted attempt to suggest that the Van Baalen brothers have somehow become nicer as a result of the events that NEVER HAPPENED is really taking the fucking biscuit.

Journey reportedly came about as a result of Steven Moffat’s dissatisfaction at earlier explorations of the TARDIS, specifically in the closing episodes of The Invasion Of Time (1978). Now, leaving aside the fact that I love the dank, municipal aspect of the bits of the TARDIS we see in that story, it is still not always a good idea to concretise things we have been imagining for so long.

As an object of infinite potential the interior of the TARDIS was a very beguiling environment. Its reification was inevitably disappointing. This making explicit of that which has previously been alluded to is really fan fiction territory. It would have to be pretty damn special to work in the context of the programme and this, sadly, isn’t.


Leela in the pool

A happy aspect of the episode is that it does at least carry on the season’s motif of referencing specific classic Doctors, the Fourth in this instance. Beyond the simple giggle at the TARDIS pool, the whole thing is reminiscent of an unproduced Fourth Doctor story called The Enemy Within. Written by esteemed novelist Christopher Priest (himself highly influenced by H.G. Wells) this was to have revealed the source of the TARDIS’s power as an octopus-like creature living off fear.

That would have been better.

Carry On Screaming!

Carry On Screaming exerts a much more direct influence on the next episode, the vastly superior The Crimson Horror written by Mark Gatiss.

He is one of the writers most closely attuned to Doctor Who is Gatiss. Several exemplary Who stories aside, he has also been involved with The League Of Gentlemen (whose influences are manifold), Crooked House (a scary Tigon/Amicus-style compilation), The First Men In The Moon, Catterick, Funland, the remake of The Quatermass Experiment, Dr. Terrible’s House Of Horrible and Sherlock. That’s an unimpeachable oeuvre. (We will leave his appearance in Sex Lives Of the Potato Men to one side as I have not seen it. Perhaps it’s good.)

He brings all these influences to bear in The Crimson Horror but especially one I have not seen him reference before: his beloved James Bond. Because what is The Crimson Horror if it is not a steampunk Moonraker? And Moonraker itself is triple distilled Bond being a straight re-write of The Spy Who Loved Me which was itself a version of You Only Live Twice.

Do pay attention, 007.

And there was so much more.

The fainting Mr. Thursday (the name possibly a G.K. Chesterton wink) seems to be a specific reference to Peter Butterworth’s Carry On Screaming character, Constable Slobotham.

The optogram business, which I adored, is straight out of Eugenio Martin’s perfunctory but awesome film Horror Express.

Jenny’s leather catsuit seemed particularly provocative in the presence of Diana Rigg. “Mrs. Peel. We’re needed!” And how great was it to finally hear Diana Rigg acting in her native Doncaster accent? Bloody great, that’s how great.

What tickled me most though, as a lad from Leeds with a lust for life, was to see Mark Gatiss getting stuck into a proper Yorkshire Doctor Who story. I loved the idea that Mr. Sweet is the antithesis of the real world’s Mr. Salt: Titus Salt who used his textile wealth to establish Saltaire, a model village designed to reduce pollution in Bradford and to deliver his workers from the slums. A lovely, clever touch.

The only things I was slightly unsure about were Matt and Jenna-Louise’s accents which sounded less Yorkshire to me, and more Victoria Wood comedy-Lancashire. This may have been deliberate. They were very, very funny.

Also I didn’t quite get Clara’s mystification at the pictures of her in Victorian London. Surely she would have thought, well I haven’t been there yet but, you know, blah blah blah time machine blah blah blah. Anyway, no matter. It was a brilliantly chilling scene rounding off a masterful episode.

Nice Fifth Doctor touches included the heavy roster of companions and a loving description of Tegan.

Next time, Neil Gaiman’s Cybermen.











































Cold War/Hide

Cold War


Andrew V. McLaglen’s movie directing career is not ignoble exactly, but neither is it spangled with greatness. A formative experience as assistant director on John Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952) set him up to direct a sequence of movies in the sixties and early seventies that signified the twilight of John Wayne’s career. Never less than workmanlike, and never more than workmanlike either, these were cheap, quick films whose titles often simply took the form of the surname of Wayne’s character: McClintock; Chisum; Cahill US Marshall.

McLaglen’s last film as director was Return From The River Kwai (1989), a less necessary film than which it is hard to imagine. It starred Timothy Bottoms, and pretty much the only way of seeing it these days is by looking up the word “hubris” in the dictionary.

But in between John Wayne’s death and his own retirement McLaglen gouged out a niche as a director of the briefly voguish mercenary movies of the late seventies and early eighties.

The Wild Geese (1978) and The Sea Wolves (1980) were two of his and so, more pertinently to this blog, was 1979’s North Sea Hijack (sometimes known, in that surnamey way he had, as Ffolkes).

North sea Hijack

North Sea Hijack is an extraordinary piece of work. In brief: lunatic Yank Anthony Perkins hijacks a North Sea oil platform. Admiralty bigwig James Mason summons the help of Roger Moore, who here plays an eccentric, woman-hating, cat-loving, whiskey-hoovering marine consultant called Rufus Excalibur ffolkes.

The action is insipid and the characters laughable, but there is some joy to be had from the early appearance (as one of ffolkes’ men) of Tim Bentinck. He is more famous these days as David Archer in Radio 4 soap The Archers, as well as having been the “Mind The Gap” voice on the Piccadilly Line of the London Underground for some years. In North Sea Hijack he essays the role of Harris with a jaunty Scottish accent and a moustache that went on to have its own career as one of the Village People.

James Bond fans may also relish Bentinck’s appearance alongside Roger Moore, as he would go on to play the voice of 007 in the video games The World Is Not Enough and Everything Or Nothing.

North Sea Hijack is a slack film on almost every level. Everybody seems to be waiting for a payday. Mason and Perkins in particular look as though they desperately want to be elsewhere doing something different. Salem’s Lot and The Black Hole perhaps. And it is difficult as an informed modern day viewer to see the jocular, fogeyish misogyny as anything other than an actual, deep-seated hatred or fear of women.

It is one of those works where the light, buffoonish wearing of an attitude serves to cloak an actual endorsement of that attitude.

Roger Moore in the worst Where's Wally ever

Roger Moore in the worst Where’s Wally ever

Archer, David Archer

Yep, definitely a girl

Mark Gatiss has drawn on many things for his Doctor Who script Cold War. As well as established parts of the Who mythology there are evident influences of the first three Alien films, John Carpenter’s The Thing, all manner of Martian attack films (particularly the two versions of Invaders From Mars) and the looming morbidity of nuclear-era dramas such as Threads, When The Wind Blows and The Day After.

Cold War is a beautiful synthesis of all of these things and, of course, Gatiss’s own creativity, but the submarine aspects of the programme, whilst looking familiar, do not adhere to the clichés of the genre. Das Boot, The Hunt For Red October, K-19: The Widowmaker, Crimson Tide (I bet there are more) all thrive on an absence of sexual tension. Like Carpenter’s version of The Thing there are no female characters to speak of, giving the stories a distinctive dynamic.

That wouldn’t play on Doctor Who of course where an acknowledged part of the drama, previously subtextual but now flagrantly part of the text, is the relationship between the Time Lord and his companion.

Invaders From Mars

Invaders From Mars

In North Sea Hijack (which to be clear is not a submarine film but is broadly analogous to one) there is a single female character amid the hurly-burly: Sanna played by Lea Brodie. It is part of the film’s brusque, laddish idiom that Roger Moore’s character doesn’t even recognise her as a girl, literally, until he’s scrubbing her down in the shower towards the end of the movie.

“My God,” says ffolkes. “You are a girl… Even so, a lot of people owe you a great deal.”

Sanna is a patronised and almost marginalised character but nevertheless she is a character who gets some plot to do, and it was Lea Brodie splashing through oil rig corridors that popped into my mind above all else when I saw Jenna-Louise Coleman in her frock and Russian naval coat ensemble in Cold War.

The very superficial similarities between North Sea Hijack and Cold War serve to emphasise two things for which I am grateful:

Firstly, that we have colossally higher narrative and technical standards serving as baseline, minimum requirements now than we did in 1979.

Secondly, that attitudes towards women’s roles in mainstream entertainment have moved on a long way.

The sexual politics of Doctor Who are slightly beyond this simple lad, but it is clear even to me that the role of companion has moved on from the original functions of dolly-bird accoutrement or frowsy explicator.

The knottedness of the River/Amy/Melody tangle was not quite to my taste, but I continue to applaud the audacity of the author’s intentions. And with Clara now we have somebody even richer and fuller of potential, I think.

Thus far, apart from her stint in solitary in Asylum Of The Daleks we have seen a phenomenal amount of Clara as surrogate Mum: nannying Digby and Francesca in The Snowmen; minding Angie and Artie in The Bells Of Saint John; protecting Merry Gejelh in the Rings Of Akhaten.

It is significant that the pivot point in the action of Cold War comes not through any agency of the Doctor, but rather when Clara starts empathising with Skaldak about his long-dead daughter.

It’s a sensitive moment, very delicately written, and quite the opposite of a conventional denouement.

And whilst Mark Gatiss gets it bang tidy in Cold War, Neil Cross knocks it out of the bloody park in his following episode, the exemplary Hide.

Hide has going for it that it is based on all the things I like best. It is a clear homage to the Pertwee era (my Doctor) and reflects the relationship the third Doctor had with Jo, and then Sarah, in the relationship between Professor Palmer and Emma Grayling. More importantly though Hide is a love letter to Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale, particularly his TV plays The Stone Tape and The Road, the second of which is sadly lost now.

It was Kneale’s gift to be able to provoke in his audience a deep, superstitious dread from events that would subsequently prove to have a rationally explainable basis. It is a neat narrative trick of simultaneous cake-having and cake-eating.

More than just successfully crow-barring some of Kneale’s flourishes into the Doctor Who format, Neil Cross then went further and gave us an entirely happy ending as the apparent antagonists turn out to be nothing more than a soppy lovelorn pair of monsters split across universes.

The mood of the piece then, and the now-expected acknowledgements of classical Who, as well as the actual nuts and bolts storytelling were all, ahem, top-notch, but beyond this we got more of the season’s over-arching theme of maternal Clara. She’s so empathic that she’s the one the empath turns to.

It is noticeable as well that the central relationship in the story is not the Doctor and Clara or the Professor and Emma, or even the crooked man and crooked (presumably) lady.

The core relationship, the one that starts and finishes the story, is the mother/daughter one between Emma and Hila Tukurian.

Great great great great great grandmother/great great great great great granddaughter, if you want to be specific.

There are many questions that may or may not be answered, and that indeed may or may not even be questions.

What is it with Clara and all the red stuff?

Why doesn’t the TARDIS like Clara?

What is going on with all the gaps, particularly the problematic hiatus between the end of The Bells Of Saint John and the beginning of The Rings Of Akhaten?

And what is the significance of the Doctor’s Barbie doll?

Cold War poster


There are podcast commentaries available for these two episodes free to download at http://feexby.podbean.com

Alternatively you can subscribe free to the podcast through iTunes at http://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/feexby/id557694053


































A little bit of politics



I have never been a Conservative Prime Minister but I have been, for a brief period in 1967-68, a two year-old and this has given me some insight into the nature of a Tory PM.

Life is hard for two year olds. Really, really hard.

As you may remember, for that first hundred weeks all of your investigations have gone to prove one thing: that you are cosmically important. You are the centre of literally everything that happens. Your confidence in this matter cannot be shaken. However, just as you are developing the language skills to explain your philosophy and to start to advance your next proposition, that some more things – all of the things, really – should be brought to you for your entertainment, people stop taking an interest and drift away.

They are lost like individual bits of poetic imagery in a Blade Runner script.

This infuriating state of affairs is temporary for most of us. We grow to accept a more realistic idea of our place in the universe. We make an imaginative leap and start to consider that maybe the insides of other peoples’ heads are bit like the inside of our own. We learn about empathy. We realise that life is finite, and that en route from the cervix to the catafalque maybe it would be quite nice to experience what other people have to offer, and to share with them what we have in return.

We rejoice in the similarities. We savour the differences. We observe our responsibilities and we are mindful of the dangers. We read, “Love thy neighbour as thyself” or, more mangledly “As ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.”

What happens is we grow up.

Some of us buy tea towels with The Desiderata written on them.

It is the personal equivalent of the Copernican revolution, that glorious scientific paradigm shift that gave us the philosophical humility to ditch the infantile favoured-child shtick in favour of a more mature view of the universe.

I don’t know whether or not Margaret Thatcher went through this process. If she did then it is hard to see any evidence of it. Her policies had no human compassion in them at all, no indication whatsoever that she understood or cared that other people have interior lives with their own complexity and fragility.

One of the things that most impresses me about the United Kingdom is the way that after the Second World War there was an engulfing wave of common sense. The country worked hard, and built things, and set up a system where, without succumbing to totalitarianism, people put into the state what they could afford and took out what they needed.

By the time Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979 some of this idealism had been squandered. Decades of prosperity had left the country with a hangover of mild complacency and inertia. It is not the case, however, that the country was a dead man walking. There was still a salvageable manufacturing base and there was still a responsible citizenry who wanted to work for their wages.

Some of the propaganda I have read since Thatcher’s death is astonishing. If you don’t remember the seventies first hand please check anything you read in the newspapers at the moment with a creditable source. The stuff that you think couldn’t possibly be true isn’t, in fact, true.

What Thatcher did is, I think, contemptible. She took the perfectly reasonable notions of personal responsibility and accountability and warped them into a cult of self-will. A charnel house of carnivorous abandon. A society in which the loudest-voiced, sharpest-elbowed, and philosophically least-inquisitive got everything, whilst the meek, the ill and the unfortunate could, frankly, fuck off.

I find this disappointing in a human. We are better than that. I find it disappointing in a woman. An opportunity to redress gender imbalance got pissed up a wall there.  And I find it disappointing in a scientist who should really have understood how society has evolved. How individual selfishness is tempered by a degree of adapted flexible social altruism, which is what prevents the species’ disintegration.

The idea of propulsive self-will, her big thing, is problematic in itself. Our lives, our consciousnesses, our society, all that stuff we claim responsibility for isn’t really of our personal doing at all. Some of us are tall and symmetrical but don’t understand sentence structure. Some of us look like Doctor Who monsters but can put together a decent cryptic crossword given enough coffee and Wagon Wheels. Some of us can put up shelves, and some of us can fart the theme tune to Van Der Valk.

That’s all stuff that came pre-installed. It’s not really something we can be congratulated for. We feel like we have the ability to work hard and develop our factory settings into something even more elaborate, but is even that any of our doing? Isn’t it more of a legacy of our early influences?

My point is, everyone’s got stuff they can and can’t do, whence-so-ever it springs. My feeling is we move forward more easily if we’ve got each other’s backs covered than if we haven’t.

Thatcher saw things differently. In her worldview you started with yourself and then moved outward, protecting those that are the most immediately like you and throwing the rest to the wolves.

Her advice to us to “rejoice” in the Falklands victory, a conflict many of us at the time found ambiguous at best, had at its core a fundamental belief that Britain was objectively correct, and that Argentina’s case was nonexistent. This was reflected in the USA at the same time with Reagan persistently traducing Russia as an “evil empire”, an absurdly reductive moral reading of a somewhat more complex political reality.

That inability to establish a rapport with other human beings possessed of a different ideology; that indignant, temper-tantrum way of insisting that you are right and they are wrong; that total failure to understand that other people have a right to be different from you. These are the things I found despicable about Thatcher.

Her foreign policies and her domestic policies boiled down to the same thing: an absolute insistence that she was correct in her opinions about self-reliance, and that any nay-sayers were to be ground to dust, and the dust pissed upon by chortling acolytes.

Right and wrong. Us and them. Hatred and intolerance. It was as though the 1974 Tomorrow People story “The Blue And The Green” had taught us nothing.

The country turned, under Thatcher’s aegis, from the equivalent of a roomful of gauche twenty year-olds all doing their best into a roomful of self-centred two year-olds. A shrieking, grabby, unsustainable mess. The result today is that we have a country in the developed world in which some people are having to choose between eating and heating their homes, whilst other people are getting their moats cleaned at the tax payers’ expense or investing in floating duck islands. Despite the fact, as I have written on many previous occasions, that DUCKS CAN ALREADY FLOAT.

It’s not even as if her policies had any validity to them. The trains, the phones, the postal service and the supply of energy were all taken out of public ownership. The argument was that the services would become leaner and fitter in the competitive world of the private sector. That did not happen. We now have a shambles of a system where in each of these cases the actual provision of a service is the last thing on the minds of the staff as they try to squeeze money out of you to fund their bonuses.

Of the arts (particularly the BBC), or sport, or anything that contributed to the aesthetic quality of life in our country she could not have been more contemptuous. All she was concerned about in that sour, dusty, Gradgrindish way was that people should accumulate personal wealth. The idea that money was a means to an end rather than an end itself would have been alien to her.

Anger is not really my business. It trips me up. It brings me down. Before I know it my brow is furrowed, my finger is wagging my dudgeon is high, my self-righteousness is off the scale and I have morphed exactly into the thing I purport to be against. So I was glad when initially Thatcher’s death on Monday left me unmoved. Obviously there were no tears. There was no grief. Neither though was there the swooping giddiness or relief I might have expected. No rage. No gloating. Nothing.

I thoroughly enjoyed the unfiltered emotional honesty of Twitter through the two days that followed, and I felt cosy and smug at how easily I was able to let it all unfold without feeling the need to roll my sleeves up and get stuck in.

Different today though. The dishonest, civilised trappings of rectitude and decorum have been dismantled today and I have discovered an angry glowing core behind them that I didn’t suspect and I don’t really know how to deal with.

MPs travelling to pay their grovelling respects will be able to claim up to £3750 expenses from the public purse. The ceremonial funeral itself will now cost somewhere between 8 and 10 million pounds. That’s all real money to someone trying to scrape by on DLA. And all in celebration of someone who did more to kick the decency, humanity and gentleness out of this country than anyone else in history.

I am angry about this.

My supposed code of love and tolerance is ragged and unconvincing today.

Thirty-four years. Still hate Thatcher.

The Rings Of Akhaten


It is never a comfortable moment in Star Trek when Uhura starts vigorously strumming her space harp and crooning about the green, glowing skies or Spock’s pointy anatomical idiosyncrasies.

Neither are the noblest bits of Survivors the episodes when Greg Preston, otherwise an exemplar of post-catastrophe competence, picks up his guitar in the manner of a party-twat and actually brings the mood of a shattered planet down even further. God knows, I love Greg as played by Ian McCulloch. He is a man so manly that he is able to wrestle even male pattern baldness into submission by sheer force of will, but this guitar stuff is unacceptable.

Uhura's space harp

Spock and Uhura

There is a musical episode of Buffy, I gather: Once More, With Feeling. People also tell me that Xena and Fringe have done them. I’m not going to dignify this with too much research because, basically, when characters are making a musical noise in a drama with the intention of amusing me I deeply and desperately want them to stop.

These musical films: West Side Story, Singin’ In the Rain, My Fair Lady, Calamity Jane, The Sound Of Music, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I love them. They are brilliant. They are proper musicals. But see if Blake and Avon started a duet, There Is Nothing Like An Auron or something like that, in an episode of Blake’s Seven I would not consider myself to be chuffed.

It’s context dependent, I think.

And yet there is still a rumbling insistence from some quarters that Doctor Who should totally do a musical episode.

No need, say I. Because we already have an abundance of them. There’s the uneasy Abide With Me climax of Gridlock. The Christmas Carol one with the nice opera lady singer. That was one too. Then there was a spell when the musical Oods had a level of ubiquity not seen since the 1977-era Bee Gees. And now finally we have The Rings Of Akhaten in which there is a purgatorial amount of singsong to get through between the opening and closing credits.

The orchestral assault of Murray Gold was a wondrous thing in 2005. A great deal of his subsequent work has been thrilling too. I am particularly a fan of his piece I Am The Doctor which is the de facto theme for Matt Smith’s incumbency. It’s a really insistent, galvanising composition.

Enough is plenty, though. It’s been eight years, and that’s quite a high proportion of the show’s fifty-year span. Nearly a fifth of the time the show has actually been on air.

There already exists a splendid documentary about the evolution of Doctor Who soundtracks called Dance Of The Daleks. It was originally transmitted on BBC Radio 3 in 2010 and was recently reissued as part of the bonus material in the third Lost TV Episodes collection. Narrated by Matthew Sweet it takes us swiftly and educationally through the avant-garde early years, Dudley Simpson’s tenure, the unsurpassable work of the Radiophonic Workshop under Paddy Kingsland and the Art Of Noise-inflected bombast of Keff McCulloch’s incidental music. It’s fascinating.

My point is that the music of Doctor Who has always previously evolved and that doesn’t feel as if it’s happening any more. And the more keening contralto hymns I hear with the composer nudging me heavily and saying “This is the bit where you have some feels” the more arsey and non-compliant I get with the whole business.

Sentimental, manipulative music cues aside I thought there was a lot to take out The Rings Of Akhaten.

The 1981 prelude is, I think, significant. What a great year that was. One of its cultural highlights was the sui generis single Ghost Town by The Specials, though I remember it as the aggrieved instigator of, and soundtrack to, some astonishing summer rioting, rather than the melancholy Autumn scene-setter it is sequestered as here. Another 1981 milestone was the UK cinema release of Raiders Of The Lost Ark or, as the grim re-writers of history would have it Indiana Jones And The Raiders Of The Lost Ark.


Here is the touchstone. This is manifestly what show runner Steven Moffat and writer Neil Cross are aiming at. It is clear in the BBC poster art. It is clear in Clara’s mother’s maiden name of Ravenwood, in Clara’s marketplace fruit pilfering (“It’s a date. You eat ’em.”) and in the shooty-light, God-bothering climax. Ultimately, whilst hitting the character beats really well, The Rings Of Akhaten lacks Raiders’ kinetic energy and openness of place. This is nothing to do with lack of ambition and everything to do with failures of execution. In a few places the spatial aspects of the story are quite confusing. After two viewings I am still fundamentally puzzled as to how far away from things other things are, and I am surprised at the low level of cinematic literacy on display in some of the transitions. It is hard to believe director Farren Blackburn is to blame for any of this. His work on The Fades was tremendous. It looks more like borked editing.


It's a date - you eat em

The pre-credits montage provides a startling callback to the 2005 episode Father’s Day in which Pete Tyler is variously run over and not run over causing a diverging of different realities. I actually though it was the same car used again but, from memory, Pete Tyler was menaced by a Vauxhall Chevette whereas Dave Oswald’s vehicular nemesis appears to be a Morris Marina. Is it? Over to you, car nerds.

Speaking as someone who got his driving licence in the eighties I feel it necessary to point out that in fact we drove carefully in those days and very rarely ran over fictional characters’ dads.


There follows a series of vignettes from young Clara’s life, each featuring the Doctor observing cautiously in the background, and once in the foreground as he is clobbered on the head by a ball kicked by infant Oswald. As funny as it was to see Matt’s Kato-esque response (the Venusian Aikido skills never leave you it seems) the incident asked a question that was left unanswered: In the course of his snooping did the eleventh Doctor cross his own timeline from the Bells Of Saint John Prequel?

We at last learn why present-day Clara was first glimpsed in a graveyard, though no explanation yet as to who her friend was. The cemetery is the resting place of Clara’s mother Ellie who died, aged 44, exactly three weeks before the incidents in Rose, the first episode of the new Doctor Who era. Interesting, but not very interesting.


Jenna-Louise Coleman turns in some beautiful character acting swinging from an angsty wait on her staircase (will the Doctor show up, or not?) to full on over-excitement in the TARDIS. I loved the writing and the playing of the scene where her mind goes blank presented with the whole of time and space, and she can’t decide where she wants to go. Her subsequent querulous indignation at the Doctor’s mention of his grand-daughter (presumably, but by no means certainly, Susan) was a delight to behold too.

The Doctor, at her eventual request, takes her to see something awesome. And whilst I very much enjoyed the ambition of the Disneyland Mos Eisley souk sequence it ultimately felt quite stilted and constricted in the manner of the crowd scenes in The Long Game and several other RTD episodes. This wasn’t helped by the context-jarring appropriation of Douglas Adams’ Hooloovoo (hyper intelligent shades of the colour blue in the Hitch Hiker books), and the TARDIS’s apparent inability to be uniquely unable to translate the speech of Hawkman Rocket Cycle vendor Dor’een.

Once past the minuscule quibbles though this was a fun re-run of The Beast below. New companion averts massive tragedy by displaying a capacity for compassion and self-sacrifice. It’s hard to criticise that in these days of self-will run riot.

For the third episode running the Doctor was not marginalised in his own programme, a tendency that I was beginning to weary of. It was nice to see him get stuck in to actually trying to save the day, though his over-reliance on his sonic screwdriver was a bit pestilential. It’s like Gandalf’s staff or Harry Potter’s wand these days. The unbeatable Top Trumps weapon of mass convenience.

There was a reason the sonic screwdriver got written out of the lore in The Visitation thirty-one years ago, trodden on by a Terileptil I seem to recall. It’s too lazy a plot contrivance. There is a lovely scene in the recent audio release Babblesphere (part of the Destiny Of the Doctor series, warmly recommended) in which neither the fourth Doctor nor Romana have theirs with them, each having left them recharging in the TARDIS on the assumption that the other would have theirs with them.

The only upside to the sonic screwdriver’s inclusion in The Rings Of Akhaten is that it facilitated a bit more Indiana Jones action as the Doctor retrieved it from under a rapidly descending door.

I appreciated the story’s denouement which, despite superficial resemblances to the end of every Christmas episode of recent years, nevertheless had its own character. There is something quite powerful in the notion that the infinity of possibilities ahead of us will trump the finite reservoir of collapsed wave functions behind us. I applaud the quick resolution of the leaf’s significance too.

The relationship between Clara and the Doctor is a warmer, more adult, mutually appreciative one than we have come to expect latterly. This is a good thing. Jenna-Louise has astonishing levels of self-possession, and I continue to be in awe of Matt Smith’s interpretation of the Doctor: half Merlin, half Stan Laurel.I was especially affected by his “Cross my hearts” moment which had Pertwee levels of reassuring conviction.

The Rings Of Akhaten has some extremely vocal and articulate detractors already (The bloody Radio Times, for heaven’s sake) and I can understand why. I am not totally blind to the deficiencies of the episode but I think that the good in it far outweighs the bad. It is easy to mythologise what has gone before, but to the critics I would say this. Go and have another look at Partners In Crime, Planet Of The Ood, Midnight or Curse Of The Black Spot then have another honest look at this. Is it really that much of an affront?

I was surprised that Clara was dropped off back at home at the episode’s conclusion. “Home again, home again, jiggity jig,” says the Doctor, invoking the fairytale/Mother Goose atmosphere once more. Clara feels that something has changed, but this may just be that she has evolved. The Doctor still looks stern, concerned and confused.

I like this.

Next: Ice Warriorssssss.

Venusian Aikido

Venusian Aikido

Disapproving TARDIS

Disapproving TARDIS

It doesn't like me!

It doesn’t like me!


Alarm clock

The Vigil

Tough crowd

Clara and Ollie

Clara and Ollie 2

It really hurts

Cross my hearts

Angry Birds

Ghost Rider in the sky


The Bells Of Saint John

The Bells Of Saint John

At the outset of Richard Lester’s magnificent, lumbering Robin And Marian (1976) Robin Hood and Little John return from an ignoble post-Crusade adventure to England, their home. Both are grey in the muzzle and their best is manifestly behind them.

There is lurking, unfinished business with Maid Marian, the Sheriff of Nottingham and King John, and a melancholy air pervades the whole enterprise. The abiding theme of the film is of people in the late stages of their lives attempting to redress balances, pay back debts and set right wrongs before the inevitable end.

The cast is cosmically good. Nicol Williamson as Little John, Robert Shaw as the Sheriff, Ian Holm as King John, Richard Harris as King Richard, Denholm Elliott as Will Scarlet, Ronnie Barker as Friar Tuck. But it is the title characters, played by Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn that the story mostly concerns itself with.

Their re-acquaintance with each other, and the slow, honest exploration of what they had, what they lost and what they have left is delicate and convincing and has great emotional mass, I feel.

Robin And Marian

There is something overpoweringly sad about the indignities of the passage of time. However great one’s achievements are, they pass. The lone and level sands stretch far away. Vast and trunkless legs of stone? You’d be lucky, mate.

And that’s Robin And Marian for you. Two once great figures reduced and senescent, and waiting for the sunset.

The film has a terribly sad ending.

What wistfulness this has wrought within me, I thought poncily as the credits rolled.

There is no way I could possibly feel more wistful than this, I continued to think. Like a git.

Then I discovered that at the time of filming both Connery and Hepburn were younger than I am now and I had to have a bit of a sit down.

What happens in life is you stand still and the sandbank erodes in front of you. People fall in the water and are gone. More sand accretes behind you and people clamber on, but you don’t get to know too much about them as you get nearer the falling off point yourself.

More than usual of late I have been aware of dim but constant lights in my life winking out and not being replaced. Of the texture of life changing, and not for the better.

The TV and radio news is a constant low, unsettling hum, set to unbalance rather than to panic.

The revoltingly wealthy are cutting themselves tax breaks because too much money is not enough for them. At the same time the vulnerable, the ill, the unfortunate are being dehumanised and blamed.

A national agenda of selfishness is kicking the cock off neighbourly love.

The regression towards barbarism is accelerating. The howls are drowned out by auto-tuned product that is to music what KFC is to chickens.

I feel, for want of a better word, sad. Also angry and powerless.

This is the problem. What, then, is the solution?

It is, for me, to get into a bit of action. Hold out a hand for someone who needs it. Talk to a person who looks like they want a chat. Do the stuff that is in front of me. Change what can be changed, and work hard at accepting that a lot of things are beyond my ability to affect.

Oblivion is easy but unhelpful, and anaesthesia is not my friend. Thus my old familiar comforts are things I view with some suspicion today.

So, what of Doctor Who? This is a programme which has been uninterruptedly in my life since 1971, my first clear recollection of it being The Daemons. Since then I have embraced it all, loving it for its awkward spikiness and its insistence, year after year, of embracing the outsiders and conferring a sense of fellowship on those to whom interpersonal niceties do not come easily.

Am I hiding behind Who today? Am I using it to distract myself from the moral abattoir of UK politics, and the insane galloping selfishness of the world?


But I will say this.

There is nothing snarling, sarcastic or judgmental about the show. Its values seem solid to me. Love, compassion, tolerance. That’s the stuff I find in it which I don’t see in The X Factor, Downton Abbey, EastEnders, Deal Or No Deal, Broadchurch, Embarrassing Bodies or any of the other million shrieking, brow-furrowed incitements to hatred that are jizzed incontinently across the schedules.

The most recent episode of Doctor Who, The Bells Of Saint John, was preceded by an almost unbearable swell of badly articulated anticipation, a lot of it on Twitter, most of it in capital letters.

The fan reaction to the show is not the same as the show however, and it is a basic category error to review the one under the guise of reviewing the other.

The episode itself was, I thought, pure, glittering essence of modern-era Who. After a rousing new reinterpretation of the theme tune – less orchestral now, more like The Crunch by The Rah Band – the story kicks off more proactively than it has done for a while. The Doctor takes a positive, practical, moral stance against an entity which is harvesting human souls. He uses the antagonist’s own weapons against it, ingeniously I thought, and restores a righteous balance as best he can with the help of new companion Clara Oswald.

There are aspects of The Bells Of Saint John which are amusingly familiar to viewers of the last few years’ worth of stories. The TARDIS telephone evokes memories of The Empty Child (2005). The mobile base stations known as the Spoonheads are distant cousins of the Nodes from Silence In The Library (2008) and the Smilers in The Beast Below (2010). But, beyond this, writer Steven Moffat also homages some great early era stories too.

The Great Intelligence’s commandeering of Wi-Fi networks is a puckish reference to The Web Of Fear (1968). The Doctor’s monastic seclusion in thirteenth-century Cumbria provokes comparisons with The Time Meddler (1965). Most splendidly though the whole story is a huge love letter to the William Hartnell episode The War Machines (1966) with The Shard standing in for the Post Office Tower.

Hey hey! We're the monks

Spotting these is fun for the fan, but is not essential for enjoyment of the story. That remains a tight 45 minutes of movie-spectacle on telly-money. There’s good writing and some ace Tommy Cooper-esque physical comedy. I was particularly fond of Matt’s phone cable foolery and subsequent monkish channelling of Exidor from Mork & Mindy.

The rapport between Matt Smith’s Doctor and Jenna-Louise Coleman’s winsome teapot Clara is a joy, particularly after the prolonged and baffling Pond saga.

And importantly there are enough unanalysed enigmas left to make the journey to November’s fiftieth anniversary special look particularly exciting. Clara seems to have two years missing from her life. And what of the mysterious helpline woman, and the even more mysterious Nina?

And does the Eleventh Doctor’s purple wardrobe reflect the end of an era, the way Tom Baker’s burgundy raiment did thirty-two years ago?

Complexity abounds. Questions flourish.

We are lucky to have this. It’s good.

You can download for free the podcast commentary I recorded with Lawrence Sutcliffe at:

iTunes – The Bells Of Saint John


Podbean – The Bells Of Saint John

Web Of Fear



Sherlock Babies

Sherlock Babies



St Paul's



Doctor Spoon

Teapot Onboard

The Snowmen – Audio commentary podcast

I neglected to mention this because I am quite shy but there exists a podcast commentary for The Snowmen which I recorded with my friends Lawrence Sutcliffe and Scott Benson.

It is here on iTunes:


Or here on Podbean:


Also here is a noise I made about Clara’s bustle:

Snow Falling On Clara

And here is a picture of Jenna-Louise Coleman:


The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey

King Kong 1933

King Kong 1976

King Kong 2005

In older, darker days I had occasion to watch Peter Jackson’s King Kong on DVD with a pal who was familiar with neither the 1933 version, nor the arch, sneery 1976 John Guillermin remake, of both of which I am quite fond. I had been encouraged in my evening’s viewing choice by two facts: a) I knew Jackson was a fan of Kong and was therefore unlikely to tit about with it too much, and b) it is a story, I thought at the time, with an unkillable structure.

The original is a great three acts. Half an hour getting to Skull Island, half an hour poncing around with the natives, half an hour of climactic NY carnage.

Well… After two hours of Jackson’s oceanic scene-setting and purposeless penisaurus-fighting my friend turned to me in a state of what sounded like suicidal ennui and said, “Has it nearly finished?”

Yes, I assured her. We are in New York now. The end is nigh. All Kong has to do is climb the Empire State Building and get shot off. It was beauty killed the beast. Blah, blah, blah. End credits, and we will say no more about this.

At which point there was a shot of the Manhattan skyline with the Empire State Building a teeny, tiny feature in the far distance.

God’s tentacles, I thought. There could be at least another hour of this. And indeed there was. Another bus-pushing, monkey-sliding, patience-pummelling hour.

I was reminded of this at the end of Jackson’s most recent movie The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey when, after almost three hours of wandering around, our vast ensemble cast looked from the top of a mountain towards the distant object of their quest.

It was really, really far away.

And I had already become quite vague about what it was and why they were going there. Probably I will find out over the next two years.

If I’m spared.

Two years…

The Hobbit

What happens in the Hobbit is this: Tim from The Office pulls his funny faces and does a series of double-and-a-half takes whilst enduring a home invasion instigated by Gandalf the Great Intelligence. The interlopers are fifty-seven gnomes, each of them brilliantly characterised. There is Irish gnome, Scottish gnome, fat gnome, ugly gnome, comparatively normal-looking gnome, twofold gnome and all the other gnomes.

They are planning on, oh I dunno, fighting a dragon who has stolen all their gold, for some reason. They do some comedy business with the eating and the burping and the singing of their little gnome song and doing a little gnome dance about the washing-up.

Having tidied up they trot off on their quest taking Tim from The Office along as their burglar. Despite his not being a burglar. For some reason.

It turns out that there are Klingons who are cross with the gnomes. Everyone fights each other for a bit with a sword named after their favourite album track by Wolfstone, and the gnomes escape through a hole in the ground. Or something.

I was asleep for parts of this film. Perhaps I should make that clear.

Anyway the hole in the ground leads to a magical pixie palace, home to the actor Kevin Elrond.

Also, and this is quite exciting, the magical pixie palace is where you will find the only female character in the whole film. Actually there may have been a buxom female Hobbit briefly, and there was definitely a pixie flautist, but this is the only female character to actually have a name and a purposeful place in the narrative, making Middle Earth a place of tokenism even more embarrassing than the Star Wars universe.

Her name is Gladys and there she is all glowing and ladylike on a literal pedestal.

“Ne-Ne Na-Na Na-Na Nu-Nu,” she explains, and off our gnomes fuck on the next bit of their pilgrimage.

There is a lengthy stop off at Mola Ram’s mining and shouting enterprise. Things pick up here momentarily as Hare from Burke And Hare turns up to do his epic 3-2-1, Ted Rogers-style riddle business.

“I am useful for driving. In me you’ll go far. I have wheels and an engine. In fact I’m a car.”


“Are you a car?


“No. I’m a bin. And here’s Norman Collier to explain why…”


Thinking about it, this might have been one of the bits I was asleep for.

During another bit of sleeping I had an idea for a movie involving the two blue wizards that are mentioned, and whom I have assumed to be Betty Blue and Blue Emmanuelle. Also instead of them being wizards one is a nun and the other is a nurse. And instead of being set in a fantasy feudal land it is set in a women’s prison. It’d be a great film.

Back in the real movie there is another fight with some Klingons and, as with every other fight in the film it looks like the gnomes will win because they have a tactical nuclear wizard in their arsenal. And indeed this comes to pass since what is even more invincible than a tactical nuclear wizard is a tactical nuclear wizard with the out-of-office number for the emergency flock of giant eagles.

Really? Eagles again?

So our brave gnomes are bravely, randomly rescued, and now there are only twelve short months to wait for the middle bit of this, what we might as well call, story.

It’s beautiful to look at is The Hobbit, in that nothing-is-real, Captain Zep Super Space Detective/Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow kind of way, but is that all we get now? Gnomeo & Juliet versus God Of War III? Is that the best we deserve? Pretty lights shining on a wall?

I just can’t find anything interesting enough in this to think or write about.

It is fabulous that Jackson has managed to smuggle some eccentric bits into a product-shifter movie this trans-global (Doctor Who’s hedgehog hospital, for instance, is a fleeting joy), but it is a sign of how numb we have become, how utterly harrowed and broken, that this fraction of a film is looked on as some sort of high watermark of legitimate adult entertainment.

It is for children. Not particularly inquisitive children at that.

If you want a three-hour movie about characters changing over the duration of a journey why not try Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker? Not only is it a brilliant film but it also has the twin advantages of an actual ending and a fascinating, insistent line of philosophical enquiry. You will not find a PS3 game of Lego Tarkovsky’s Stalker and that is indicative of something.

Wake up.