Journey To The Centre Of The TARDIS/The Crimson Horror

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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.)

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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.

TARDIS pool

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.

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Cold War/Hide

Cold War

Hide

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

Unknown-1

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

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Kate Bush – Deeper Understanding

It turns out that I have no idea how to write about Kate Bush.

There are oodles of things that I find of passing interest, The Mighty Boosh, Billy Wilder, casseroles, Central Office of Information films and walking up hills for instance. Then there are things that I find pretty intriguing like Italian zombie movies of the seventies, the Matt Scudder books of Lawrence Block, Lost, photography, Frank Zappa, The Avengers. That sort of thing.

My obsessions however (and straightaway that’s not the right word) are threefold. Doctor Who, James Bond, Kate Bush. That’s what I will be forever gurglingly uncritical about.

Yes. You are quite correct. The ending of Thunderball is a bit of a muddy and ambiguous mess. Some of those Colin Baker/Sylvester McCoy stories were a bit juvenile. And perhaps the maternal contentment of Aerial doesn’t quite communicate itself to those of us condemned (through gross physical imperfection and acute social maladroitness) to die without issue.

The thing is though, even the worst moments of Bond, Who and Bush are magnificent.

The Daniel Craig Bond films Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace are giddy marvels and my heart is gladdened that there is to be a third. Quantum of Solace felt like the middle part of a trilogy and my neurotic side will remain a bit fidgety until the story arc is finished. However, heterodoxically, I also think that Roger Moore was rather a fine James Bond. He may even be my favourite. Certainly the two movies that came out in 1977 and 1979 (The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker) remain my favourites, though they are not fondly regarded by the whole of the rest of the world.

“Any higher Mr. Bond and my ears will pop,” chides a sexy stewardess at the beginning of Moonraker as Bond 3 moves his porkchop-looking hand up her thigh. A fracas on the plane ensues and Bond is chucked out without a parachute. An hour and a half later, to the thrillingly complex John Barry score, Bond is leading a space shuttle attack on Hugo Drax’s space station. I’d like to see xXx do that. (Aside: I wouldn’t really like to see xXx do that.)

I was fourteen in 1979. I am forty-five now. There is not a frame of Moonraker that I do not love.

Similarly with Doctor Who. The slicker it gets, the darker it gets, the more polymorphously perverse it gets (and I’m definitely in favour of all of this), the more fond I become of the stilted, done on a budget, 4:3 ratio shows of the sixties and seventies. They are now almost all out on DVD and the restoration job done on the surviving images is astonishing. The extras are vast and opulent. It’s a good time to be a Who fan.

Old Bond, new Bond. Old Who, new Who. The reinvigoration of these phenomena, when all but the truly faithful had given them up for vulture food, is a delight. In each case the creators have held on to what made the contraptions work in the first place, but they’ve also upgraded them so that the expectations of the 21st Century bubble-mind are met.

What though, of Kate Bush?

She has released one album in the 21st Century, Aerial (2005) and, whilst it’s an album I can quite enjoy in a superficial way it isn’t a work that I can find a way into.

My introduction to Kate Bush, as with many people of my generation, was her appearance on Top of the Pops in 1978. It was difficult to be surprising in that long-ago shrieking maelstrom. There was prog rock. There was punk. There was Showaddywaddy. There were the fucking Wombles for fuck’s sake. Everything was weird.

But in the middle of it all Kate Bush, dressed in her nightie and howling like a banshee gone mad on the glue, really commanded attention. And (and this was exciting) she seemed to be singing about a book.

I was so excited my NHS specs probably fell into my bowl of Golden Nuggets.

Wuthering Heights

Kate Bush’s first two albums were released within months of each other, something you can hardly imagine happening now. The Kick Inside came out in February 1978 and that was the attention grabber. Not only did it have Wuthering Heights on it, the only number 1 hit she has had to date, but it also had Them Heavy People and the utterly eerie The Man With The Child In His Eyes.

By any measure The Kick Inside is a fabulous album. Thirty-three years later it’s still hard to credit that it is the work of a twenty year-old. The wisdom of millennia is rolling around inside it like oiled ball bearings.

Her second album followed in November 1978, and this I think is when my love for Bush became unconditional. Lionheart is a brilliant work, complicated, sexually confident, exotic, literate and timelessly, irresistibly English. At a time when the Right were running riot, and you only really saw the cross of St. George or the Union flag in a racially inflamed context, Bush took the centuries old magic of pre-Christian England and extrapolated it into a romantic, gallant alternative present with an occult underside.

Never Forever (1980) and the ferociously experimental The Dreaming (1982) followed, and now that I’ve warmed up I could do you two thousand words on each of those albums easily-peasily. However, time is passing.

It was with her fifth record that she peaked commercially, 1985’s The Hounds Of Love.

Lionheart

The Hounds Of Love is one of my desert island discs. It’s a swooping, terrifying, exhilarating record. Half concept album, half hit factory it was still nothing like any of the records it shared the charts with at the time. If you heard it for the first time today and knew nothing about it you would assume it was a brand new 2011 thing.

Then, apart from a greatest hits compilation, some odd sound track contributions and a Peter Gabriel duet (of enduring beauty), nothing. For ages.

I maintain that The Sensual World (1989) with its unearthly blending of Bulgarian throat music, Uilleann pipes, fiddles and whistles, is one of the best things that Kate Bush has done. I maintain that. But I also maintain that you can do worse things with a Sunday afternoon than watch Never Say Never Again or The Monster Of Peladon, so there you go with that then.

It was not a conspicuous success, though far from a flop, and there was another long gap until 1993’s The Red Shoes.

The Sensual World

The Red Shoes yielded a number 12 single in the ebullient form of Rubberband Girl. It also contained the devastatingly emotional You’re The One and Moments In Pleasure. But there are tracks on the album that are not brilliant and I, at least, had a sense that the light had dimmed slightly. And that was that until Aerial, the happy album, filled with gratitude and the joy of being a mother.

From time to time in my life I have fallen in love with girls who have not fallen in love with me. Yes, it’s a big fat stripey surprise to me too, but there you go. It is a painful thing to watch someone you love fall for someone else, get married and start having kids, especially when you are squatting half naked in a feculent flat, cooking a rat on a stick over a fire in a brazier.

That’s what happened to me and Kate. She went off and got happy, and I’m not a part of that.

The reason for typing all of this though is that there is suddenly a bit of hope. For the first time ever I have downloaded a new Kate Bush track from iTunes. (In the olden days we would have called this “buying a single”). I have pre-ordered her new album too. It comes on to my computer by magic on May 16th.

It’s not exactly a new album though. Bush has given it the title Director’s Cut, and rather than it being new material it is made up of revised versions of tracks from The Sensual World and The Red Shoes.

What an odd endeavour, although it isn’t without precedent. For the release of The Whole Story (the 1986 greatest hits compilation) Bush recorded a fully revised vocal track for Wuthering Heights.

So, until May 16th I have only one track to judge the new album on: the single Deeper Understanding, which is, by the way, a deranged choice of single.

A minor track on The Sensual World, Deeper Understanding tells the story of someone withdrawing from the real world and spending more and more time with their computer. This, I recall, seemed almost risibly simple-minded in 1989. It has a vastly amplified relevance now obviously. Typical of Bush in fact. Although a skim along the top of her work gives the impression of a naïve, pastoral view of the world, closer inspection reveals her to be an acute observer of the intricacies of technology.

If you don’t believe me, listen to any of her albums on headphones.

The production, to quote Gerald the gorilla from another context, is phenomenal.

I think, on the strength of the Director’s Cut version of Deeper Understanding that I may well love this album-to-be. Apart from a lengthening of the track which gives more of a sense of a changing relationship, the biggest immediate difference is that the close-harmony ululations of the Trio Bulgarka which previously portrayed the computer’s voice have been replaced by one of those wonky Sparky the Magic Piano voice-changers that Cher used once, and everybody uses all the time now.

Sounds like sacrilege, but in context it works. I can’t wait to hear what the rest of the album is like.

Babooshka