Opening the Span of Our Horizons

Brian Lamb and the Loss to Democracy

May 19th will see the retirement of a man who might well be able to lay claim to being the most important media figure of the last 50 years. C-Span founder Brian Lamb is retiring.

Here in the UK, C-Span is not often watched – perhaps unsurprisingly. My impression is that ex-pats, politico geeks and ‘The West Wing’ affectionados form its core audience.

My introduction came via this last category and I stumbled across a show called ‘C-Span Q&A‘ around 2009. It was a simple show: an old guy talks to a person, usually a writer but not always, for an hour.

Just that. No adverts, no razzmatazz, no hectoring or screaming: just a person being allowed to articulate their point of view in their own words.  It is the sort of television which doesn’t get made any more and a lesson to any one with an interest in media about what can be done.

Over the last decade, I have listened to the show pretty consistently – or consistently inconsistently as I have a tendency to binge listen to them. Lamb is a revelation. Unfailingly polite, thoroughly prepared, he never pretends to know anything he does not and he asks questions in a simple way, drawing out implications for viewers in case they don’t have the depth of knowledge he does – which few of us could possibly have but he’d never be so mean as to highlight this!

And now I discover that midway through the month, he is stepping down. The former naval lieutenant who once attended press briefings with Robert MacNamara and walked LadyBird Johnson down the aisle, who persuaded Congress to let cameras in and established public service political broadcasting in the most cut throat media market in the world – and kept it free and on the air – is off.

Brian Lamb is a self-effacing one off. He will be sadly missed by people who think that politics, its coverage and how people access it, matters for the good of all – no matter where they are on the globe.

It seemed somehow tragically appropriate that the news of his retirement came via an interview in the Rupert Murdoch owned ‘Wall Street Journal’.

An interview which couldn’t read as it is behind a pay wall. Another institution which forms part of the key narrative of 20th century American media, The Washington Post, recently changed its slogan to “Democracy Dies in Darkness”. The retirement of Brian Lamb represents an unparalleled dimming of democracy.

He will be truly missed.

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Slow Horses Still Glued Up

Slough House’ is dirty; ‘Spook Street’: deadly. Now we have the duplicity of ‘Joe Country’ – perhaps the next stop for Mick Herron’s ‘Slow Horses’ will be a devious ‘Intelligence Continent’?

As it is, ‘Joe Country’ is a fine addition to the series. Few writers can weave such deft description and pacy plotting – garnished with lashings of humour and even dashes of pathos – as Herron and each novel builds to a crescendo in which the reader is left feeling both traumatised and hungry for the next instalment.

There’s little doubt that Herron is a confident writer at the top of his game. This series has become famous for its openings: Dickensian wanders through locations in an omniscient voice quite unlike other writers working today. Here, he sheds this trope, instead opting for a reveal different to the structure of the other texts.

His confidence has also been apparent for a while in his wanton profligacy with his characters. It must take iron nerves for a writer to dispose of such well-rounded, independent characters brimming with such vim and spark as these Slow Horses. And yet, here again, Herron is prepared to dispose of them with abandon. As in the old TV series Spooks (MI:5 in the US), no one is safe and this means no reader can ever truly relax that their favourite character won’t end up at the knackers yard in the next ten pages.

Finally, there is Jackson Lamb. A Rabelaisian grotesque, becoming progressively more grotesque by the novel. And, in truth, Lamb is actually my biggest quibble of this first rate book. He dominates the proceedings so completely that you pine for his nastiness when he is off stage. This is Banquo as central character, relegating Macbeth to bit part player by sheer force of personality (or blackened toe wiggling through undarned sock, if you will).

There are a few minor worries deriving from Lamb which I hope are me being hyper critical. He keeps “appearing” and “vanishing” like an obese Paul Daniels – or a less creepy David Blaine – and I hope this doesn’t signal either Lamb as supernatural entity or that Herron is now so successful that he has entered the realm of the uneditable: too grand for repetitions to be noted and corrected. I think not on the whole.

Joe Country’ is proof, if any were needed, that Herron stands at the pinnacle of the espionage genre, (possibly snug on the heights with Jeremy Duns and Charles Cumming). Others have already noted it is not a book which would reward readers unfamiliar with the series but for all that, I hope the Slow Horses have many more races left to run.

In short: Horses far from in need of the knacker’s yard: 4/5*

  • Other details:
  • ISBN: 9781473660359
  • Publication date: 20 Jun 2019
  • Imprint: John Murray

Thanks to Netgalley for the advance copy

Reposting: The Politics of Poldark

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The smouldering cast of 2015’s BBC adaptation of ‘Poldark’

This post about the Politics of Poldark has proved consistently popular. Please note, this was originally written and posted in May 2015 after Season One and doesn’t deal with any later events in the show 

As with a great many of these sorts of things, I came to the 2015 adaptation of Winston Graham’s ‘Poldark’ novels late (i.e. after they had finished airing and we got them on DVD). I was not keen at first. “Oh good – another BBC costume drama about poncey aristos doing their best Colin Firth-impression” is not a phrase I’m likely to utter. However, I was delighted to be proved wrong. From early in the first episode, I was entranced. Not – in the way that apparently the middle aged cohort of Sunday night fantasists obsessed with Aidan Turner’s pecs are – but by the choice of subject at this particular juncture in political history. Brave does not begin to cover it. We’ve all heard the BBC criticised for bias – in Scotland for a pro-union stance, in England for its slavish adherence to Tory policy or for being the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’. I’ve always taken a neutral stance on this alleged bias – firstly, I’m sceptical that an organisation as Byzantine and disparate as the BBC is capable of maintaining a coherent party line (I struggle with believing in organisations to be that organised.) And, also, because I think if you’re being attacked for bias from all sides, then you’re probably on the right lines. But make no mistake – ‘Poldark’ is brave. In an age of austerity, with food bank usage topping 1 million people, (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/apr/22/food-bank-users-uk-low-paid-workers-poverty) for the nation’s broadcaster to produce an adaptation centred on a man of noble birth concerned with the survival of his workers to the extent that he will take on starving miners as farm hands and use his societal position to raise capital to put his people back to work is pretty ballsy.

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

Ross Poldark and serving wench Demelza

The point of business is not just to make money is like a refrain for Ross Poldark and he outrages his contemporaries with this standpoint. He stands up for poachers and petitions not only the court for clemency, but also the owner of the pheasants, because of the context of the boy poacher’s circumstances. He is acutely aware of the hardships of subsistence living in his period for normal people. Poldark even tries to form what amounts to a Fairtrade workers’ collective to gain a fair price for the tin mined in the region. “I’m disgusted by my class,” he tells the lovely Demelza (another waif saved from a poor home life by Poldark at a time he can ill-afford to pay for another mouth to feed), “not all of them, but most.” In short, the character of Poldark is like a socialist hero of another age – one who actually believes that by working together we can all get richer. At a time when the top 1% are stretching away from the other 99% across the developed world, I can scarcely think of a more suitable hero than a man who is willing to see poverty and hardship as the result of circumstance rather than sloth and ingratitude and well done to the BBC (and Mammoth Screen who have undertaken the lavish production) for daring to offer the nation a compassionate hero – even if he does spends too long topless scything and staring out of the window in moody contemplation.

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark - a socialist hero?

Aidan Turner as Ross Poldark – a socialist hero?

Revisiting… Goldeneye

Last week I wrote about my introduction to the cinema through the unexpected medium of the Care Bears. A decade or so later, I was granted an introduction to a cinematic icon in the James Bond reboot, Goldeneye.

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The iconic poster for Goldeneye (1995)

I had six when Timothy Dalton’s debut, The Living Daylights had been released but my folks weren’t quite up to a cinema visit for that sort of film, so I mainly remember having to make do with cards from the Trio chocolate promotional packs stuffed into the pocket of my Parka. Then came Dalton’s second outing Licence to Kill; and, let’s face it, that movie is no place for children.

So, 1995 was my chance to watch Bond on the big screen. The movie debuted on 21st November and the way we watched it speaks volumes about how movie going had changed over the 10 years which had elapsed.

My parents took me – both of them this time as disabled access was now available. We were no longer in the charmingly crafted but dilapidated flea pit Picturedrome, Bognor Regis, but in the plush surroundings of Hampshire’s Port Solent, an area of reclaimed landfill and marshlands re-purposed in the late 80s to become a marina and expensive housing development. Tickets prices to see films had of course increased by, on average, 104%.

But what of the movie?

We open on a plane flying over a gigantic dam. We’ve had the opening gun barrel walk but all incidental music ceases as the light aircraft sweeps over this vista in spectral silence.

Then, we see a man run and bungee down this impressive 750 metre edifice, which saw stuntman Wayne Michaels set a world record for a tethered jump. By the way, this location is the Contra Dam in Switzerland, and because of this – still impressive – stunt, voted the greatest of all time in a 2002 Sky Movies poll. Incidentally, and this blog in no way endorses this course of action, the stunt inspired a company to begin offering you the opportunity to bungee jump off it yourself if you’re in that frame of mind. Details here: https://www.getyourguide.com/ticino-l80/golden-eye-bungee-jumping-from-the-verzasca-dam-t3225

bond16 dam jump

Pierce Brosnan’s Bond (stuntman Wayne Michaels) dives off the 750m Contra Dam

And, I gotta tell you – Pierce Brosnan never looked better. Especially in the early part of the movie, that man is channeling both Dalton, Roger Moore and Sean Connery. There’s a best of feel to his performance which, if he’d had better scripts throughout the rest of his tenure would have put him significantly up the pecking order of greatest Bonds. Man could wear a tuxedo, too…

Tom Cruise and his rhyming slang character, Ethan Hunt, would’t debut for another six months, but Brosnan’s toilet entrance now looks like a fun twist on the famous vault access from Mission Impossible.

Alongside Brosnan, Sean Bean, an actor who ordinarily I find as sympathetic as a serial killer and as appealing as an aggressive cavity search, is never better than as Alex Trevelyan. His performance is cleaner, more nuanced and significantly more subtle than I remembered. His “execution” is harsh – even today.

Martin Campbell is clearly the man for reinvigorating the franchise as, nine years later, it would be him in the hot seat to replenish the steaming, coiled wreckage visited on the series in the superlative Casino Royale.

Here, he settles for the charmingly nostalgic return of the Aston Martin DB5, which is an excellent touch, as is the race with Famke Janssen- a driving sequence arguably not bettered until Quantum of Solace.

Dutch actress Janssen plays Xenia Onatopp, famed for her unique way of dispatching villains. Memorable for sure, but she somewhat overshadows Bean’s performance with her cartoonishly psychotic antics, which is a shame.

Famke Janssen

Other downsides? The body count is troublesome. I know this came before advent of introspective heroes, but jeso, do people get mown down with video game abandon in this movie.

Also, the incidental music is more 80s than a superhero team up featuring Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer. Which is odd because it couldn’t really be more mid-90s but this the consistent pounding on the synthesizer is hard going on the ear. It’s a rough listen today: heavy handed and distracting.

And, finally the theme tune. Tina Turner does belt out a tune but the only Edge that should be invoked here is the one which U2 should have been shoved off. The lyrics read like they were constructed during a Madlibs game fuelled by LSD.

Some of my favourites include:

See reflections on the water/ more than darkness in the depths/ see him surface in every shadow/ on the wind I feel his breath

Goldeneye I found his weakness/ Goldeneye he’ll do what I please/ Goldeneye no time for sweetness/ but a bitter kiss will bring him to his knees…

Goldeneye not lace or leather/ Golden chains take him to the spot/ Goldeneye I’ll show him forever/ it’ll take forever to see…

It’s a gold and honey trap/I’ve got for you tonight…

with a goldeneye, goldeneye.

To which I can only say: gibberish.

goldeneye_1995_4

Brosnan and 006 Alex Trevelyn (Sean Bean) in happier times

There’s more to say about this movie and, especially, the spin off video game which is a peak in the history of that medium so high it couldn’t be bettered by a pair of Italian plumbers, but I’ll leave it there for now. A high in the career of Pierce Brosnan as Bond, this is classic well worth #revisiting.

With a golden, goldeneye…

 

A Film Education

It started with the Care Bears, (said nobody ever.)

But, for me, it really did start with Care Bears: The Movie. I was 4 and this was 1985 and my parents took me, along with some friends from play school, to the local cinema for the first time. img_1502

I remember nothing. One of the friends may have been celebrating a birthday. She may have had a sister. I’m guessing that may explain the choice of movie.

Subsequently, I’ve done some research. Cinematic golden age problem child Mickey Rooney was in it. The writer, Peter Sauder, had written on such top notch fare as Inspector Gadget, Star Wars: Droids (that’s the cartoon which Disney are still trying to resolve the issue of its place in the cannon 30 years later) and went on to the glories of Barbar, Rupert and the Beetlejuice cartoon.

Mickey. Rooney: cinematic legend – Care Bear extraordinaire

But I knew none of this. What I remember is my mum tapping me on the shoulder – was it a minute? An hour? A day into the movie? I had no idea. I had disappeared. She learnt across and said, “Were you in the film?”

When I finally came to, I had to just nod and grin. All I knew was that I was in the screen. There was a ringing in my ears. I’d forgotten where I was. I’d forgotten that there was a here I’d forgotten about. Far as I knew, there was only Care Bears world now.

Total immersion is tough to describe. Bognor Regis’ Picturedrome dates back to the 1880s and, these days, appears to have been rejuvenated. In the 80s, when the average cost of a cinema ticket I’m reliably informed was a whole £1.70 for an adult, it was known unaffectionately as the “flea pit”. Salubrious it was not. I loved it.

The Bognor Picturedrome: previously known as “the Fleapit”. Quite nice now.

My next love was TV and Granada classic, The Professionals. I mean, due to a speech impediment, I couldn’t actually say that. So, in fact, my next love was The Procesionals, much to my parents’ delight and amusement but for me there was nothing like two U.K. Starsky and Hutch rip offs sliding across the bonnet of a pair of Ford Capris under the disapproving eye of that bloke from Upstairs Downstairs to excite my pre-school heart.

The addiction grew. But the world was very different then, even though it’s not that long ago* (*It may, in fact, now be quite a long time ago). My parents couldn’t afford a video recorder so we didn’t get one till at least 1989.

By the time I went way to boarding school in the early 90s, I was sat in the phone booth whilst my poor father had to go to the shop on a Thursday to get both the Radio Times (BBC1&2) and the TV Times (ITV/Channel 4) and then my mother had to spend her telephone bill reading out to me which movies were on that week so she knew which ones to VHS for me to watch when I got home at the end of term. No parents are perfect, but the fact they didn’t excommunicate me or leave at boarding school does speak very highly of this particular pairs’ good humour and tolerance.

I watched Barry Norman and Film Insert-Whichever-Year-Here like other people went to church. I was easy to buy for at Christmas – the latest Halliwells Film Guide would keep me occupied for hours. In fact, I’d read them so thoroughly that kids used to test me by asking me to the name the year, main actors and synopsis of any film in the book. I usually did ok too.

Last week, I began work on a script with a guy I’ve known forever and who is a successful film maker of many years’ standing. He’s thrown me an invite because he’s very kind and because… I don’t know, he took pity on me? Who knows. All I know is ill forever be grateful for the opportunity.

I hope the script gets finished.

I hope it’s good.

I hope we can get it made.

But mainly, I hope that it has the power and emotional resonance of Care Bears: The Movie.

A Dance to the Music of Crime

I have an aunt who once told me in confidence that the greatest relief of her life was when she read an article explaining that she did not have to read Proust in order to be considered well read. She is, by any normal, sane standards, an exceedingly well read lady but no amount of madeleines and tea or epiphanies can persuade her that she wants to wade through the full text of A La Recherche du Temps PerduIn a House of Lies

As someone who is still struggling to chart the full course of ‘Swann’s Way’, I understand those readers who share her aversion when it comes to the writer regarded as the English Proust, Anthony Powell and his masterwork, ‘A Dance to the Music of Time. Interestingly, Ian Rankin does not appear to be one of them. In fact, he’s quite the fan.

I was a member of the Anthony Powell Society (I lapsed, I’m sorry! I’m coming back – promise!) but every year, I re-read the full 12 novel sequence (or, perhaps, re-listen is a more apt description as I listen to the mighty Simon Vance’s audiobook recording?)

This time, I had to bench this particular pleasure as I I was impatient to listen to the latest John Rebus outing – ‘Taggart’ actor James MacPherson having recorded all of the Rebus novels to date and done a superb job.

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Nicholas Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time

I’ve long believed that Rankin is foremost chronicler of contemporary Scottish life. From as far back as ‘Set in Darkness‘ which hinged upon – and poked fun at – the furore around the opening of the Scottish Parliament, it has long been obligatory to say that ‘Edinburgh is as much a character as the people’ (a compliment used so often it sets my teeth on edge, what it does to Rankin’s dentistry I can only imagine.)

But, for me, it always felt that it was ‘Naming of the Dead’ where Rankin really began to embrace parachuting Rebus and his Watson – boy she’d hate that – Siobhan Clarke like action hero Rosencrantz and Guildensterns charging through the 2005 G8 summit.

And then Rebus reached retirement age and that was that.

Except it wasn’t. Rankin managed the seemingly impossible. He brought our misanthrope hero back, he got to have the joy of seeing Clarke outrank her mentor and then he got to play fantasy comic book team up by including anti-Rebus goody two shoes, Malcolm Fox.

Rebus’ Moriarty, “Big Ger” Cafferty also lurched towards retirement although –spoiler alert – maybe not of the lasting variety. The Naming of the Dead

Last year, 30 years after he first beat the streets of our capital, a character now as unrecognisable as the city he is associated with, Rebus took a year off.

It was void in my reading life, for sure.

Hence my impatience to get hold of the big man’s 22ndouting. And then: somewhat unexpectedly, it was Powell that ‘In a House of Lies‘ reminded me of.

You could detail the plot: body in car in woods, old case reignited, Rebus on original investigation, the veteran doing a favour for Clarke who has been receiving threatening calls, but you know what? It’s not important (sorry Ian, I can only imagine how annoying it is after all your hard work) but I just like seeing the team back together.

I love Rebus bristling with Fox, walking his new sidekick Brillo, see him still driving his knackered Saab (“It’s not vintage, it’s old,” he testily informs another character at one point.) It’s comforting to spend time with Clarke.

For a reader, it’s like a warm bath – albeit one with murder, low budget Scottish film making and a distinctly tongue in cheek hat tip to the more cosmetic societal changes of the MeToo movement. Perhaps the greatest trick Rankin pulls off is introducing new characters like

The way characters move in and out of each other’s lives is Powell-esque, as are the coincidences. I wonder how the books play down south where I imagine having a detective who worked the original case and all the spiralling connections seems far-fetched. For those readers I say: come to the Highlands, it seems positively weird if you don’t run into colleagues all the time.

Nick Jenkins

James Purefoy as Nick Jenkins

So, can you directly compare Rebus world to the comic novels of upper middle class manners of ‘Dance’?

Course you can.

John Rebus as Nick Jenkins? I think not. Our hero is far too down to earth and interesting to play the arrogant first person protagonist of Powell’s world. But he (used to) drink enough to be classic soak Charles Stringham and is charming enough when he wants to be to get his own way with a passion for danger so, perhaps, he is the Peter
Templar of the sequence.

Siobhan Clarke is, I think, Emily Brightman. An esoteric pull, I admit, but this seemingly minor character has Clarke’s desire to cut through the flowery prose which obfuscates and frustrates clarity (see her demolition of the French gutter press in book 11 ‘Temporary Kings) which powers Siobhan.

Malcolm Fox is more tricky. He has elements of the Widmerpool about him in his difficult family life, his desire to be “good” (whatever that means in his world) but he also wants to be loyal and, across his immersion in the word of Rebus has become a far more interesting character than in his more staid standalone world. His seemingly magnetic romantic attraction brings to mind Ralph Barnby, although a Byronic Lothario painter is about as far from Malcolm as could be imagined, so a hybrid Widmerpool, Barnby and civil servant Sir Leonard Short is possibly convincing, even if the mind boggles. Widmerpool

And so what of Big Ger Widmerpool then? He has waltzed in and out of the dance of Rebus’ life for nigh on 30 years and, even though pretenders to the throne like Daryl Christie are strong characters, even the best of these never quite move past Pepsi to the big man’s full fat Coke.

That’s why this is where the comparison breaks down. Powell never wrote anyone like the Gothic Cafferty. He’s more like John Le Carre’s Karla, locked in intellectual combat with his nemesis, as Rebus’ dance card fills and people come and go.

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Patrick Stewart as the reticent espionage genius Karla.

Powell’s 12 novel sequence is, arguably, the finest long form work in English. Certainly, as roman fleuve go, it is accessible, amusing and poigniant.

But what Rankin has achieved is truly remarkable. If it was “literary fiction”, whatever that is, it might get treated with less snobbery but for a razor sharp analysis of the monumental changes which have taken place in the last 30 years in Scotland, this is as fine writing as you could ask for. Funny, sharply observed, moving, pacey and rooted in a world recognisable to ordinary folk. And he’s done that over 22 novels (in this sequence alone).

61wMZQZ69PL._SX496_BO1,204,203,200_In a 2015 piece about ‘Even Dogs in the Wild‘, I suggested that Rankin was getting better and better. On this evidence, and unlike the unholy trinity of Rebus, Clarke and Fox, I may have understated the case.

‘In A House of Lies’ Ian Rankin, Orion, 4thOctober, 2018, ISBN-10 9781409176886

 

Adieu Roi Soleil

Author Peter Mayle, 78, passed away on Thursday, 18th January 2018 after a brief illness. The news was discreetly put out by his publisher Alfred A Knopf, a short statement appearing on his Facebook page. And that was that.

peter mayle

Author Peter Mayle, who has died aged 78

In the UK, Mayle’s passing was noted in obituaries on the BBC and in a number of newspapers: The Guardian, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail all carrying mentions (even The New York Times further afield).

However, considering the impact that Mayle had on the British middle classes in the latter part of the 20th century, I am staggered by how muted the marking of his passing was.

A Year in Provence will be his legacy. The Telegraph cites six million copies sold after an initial print run of just 3,000. The Daily Mail has a charming story of a pilot reading the book during the first Gulf War reading a copy whilst waiting for order to fly into battle.

They’re cute anecdotes. But their real value is as the symbol of the man who invented the modern British middle class dream. Before that period in the late 1980s, there was little talk of “foreign” food and property abroad.

year in provence

The only people wanting homes in foreign fields were bank robbers and Ronnie Biggs. Mayle changed all that.

Before long, anyone with a property to mortgage and grown dependents were indulging their taste for property speculation and moaning about foreign building regulations. There’s not been a conquest as sudden or all-encompassing since the Normans sharpened their arrows.

Later, he suffered from the Law of Unintended Consequences. His picturesque descriptions of truculent natives and long, lazy lunches in bucolic settings famously invited visitors; fans of the work pitching up to say hello and becoming so intrusive that he and his wife were forced him to leave Provence. Initially they relocated to America and Amagansett on Long Island; later returning to his beloved southern France – although this time not being quite so free with his location descriptions that people could actually hunt him down.

Latterly, Mayle’s novels seemed to want to cater to an American audience. His old eye for the market, formed in his advertising days meant that, in such fare as his Sam Levitt triology The Marseille Caper , The Vintage Caper and The Corsican Caper, he drew characters from both Britain and America.

corsican caper

These light as a soufflé romp almost always included beautiful French locations, women whose beauty was echoed in the vistas, clumsy Hugh Grant-lite Englishmen and villains redeemed by chicanery and the power of a decent lunch. Capers were apt descriptions.

Unsurprisingly, he was ill-served by the English language literati who paid little mind to his work. This is reflected in the paucity of his output available on Audible and the seemingly extraordinary lengths one had to go to obtain copies of these novels online. The fact that France gave him the Legion d’Honneur in 2002 is a testament to their generosity when you consider how many Brits of dubious use to the French state followed him.

Personally, I enjoyed his novels. He had a talent for plot and kept the stories whipping along and always ending happily – with sun. And lunch. And wine. Or dinner. Or lunch with sun and wine stretching through to dinner. With wine. Bliss.

It is sad to think that there is no more of his work to come. Maybe I am the right age, the right demographic to have enjoyed his work. But I did. I’ll miss tracking the new book down. Luckily, his back catalogue remains.

Farewell to the Sun King.

 

Welcome to your new, improved nation – it’s a dog’s life

Dogs. Clearly not sentient.

Pets are the best, aren’t they?

And by pets, I mean dogs. (I have nothing against cats. Sure, they’re cute. But they’re not “pets” either. They’re Hannibal Lecter as house guest.)

But dogs – now you’re talking. There they are: cavorting on your bed; staring with undisguised joy at your return home; pleading with deep sincerity at the truth that they have never been fed before, honest guv.

And now, it turns out, they are keeping you healthier and living longer too. Frankly, that’s so cool, it almost makes you not mind about mud on the sheets, hair in your food and crippling midnight cramp because the Labrador knows where it wants to sleep – and that’s where you are. Always.

Attila. Another dog clearly not capable of feeling.

Britain is a nation of dog lovers, cue the cliche klaxon, but the UK’s love of animals is under threat from our own representatives.

If you live in the UK, your government voted on Thursday 16th November to not include animal sentience in the EU withdrawal bill.

Under current EU law, animals are recognized as being capable of feeling pain and emotion – something any one who has ever caught the eye of a bereft dachshund as you swallow the last morsel from your plate without sharing can attest to.

When Lily – Labrador, giant baby – had a tooth out, she cried as the anaesthetic wore off. All night. The only balm to her wound? Being stroked as if she were a human child. Don’t tell me she can’t feel pain.

The Government argues that this is a topic adequately covered by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 Bill. But it is not, as this doesn’t mention sentience. So, here we are: our government have just opened the door to all those wonderful things that we are

The torture of not being on the bed.

supposed to want in our brave new future: chlorine-washed chicken and a reduction in legislative standards which opens the door for drastically reduced standards for animal testing and food standards.

Many of the people who voted for Brexit count themselves patriots and want to restore the UK to what they see as its former glory.

So, here’s an idea: perhaps, just perhaps, they ought to extend this to our fabled love of animals. The RSPCA say this is a bad idea – even the hairball with the disturbed eyes knows that this is a bad idea. Make sure you let your elected officials know – this is wrong.

Revisiting… Inspector Morse

30 Not Out.

Sunday night, 8th January 2017, the fourth series of ITV’s Endeavour begins. With a pleasingly orchestrated symmetry, this also marks the 30th Anniversary of its beloved origin show, Inspector Morse.

Morse on DVD

The DVDs of the Complete Inspector Morse episodes are available for purchase from Amazon

Inspector Morse aired for the first time on Tuesday 6th January 1987 and, it is fair to say, it did not appear at a time of optimism for the contemporary TV viewer. ITV’s reputation for drama had all but evaporated – the pinnacle, Brideshead Revisited, lay 6 years in the past

The previous year, 1986, had included  modern classics like The Singing Detective  and The Monocled Mutineer so, there were things of note happening on television.

Just not on ITV.

Morse would change all that.

Its leisurely pace of two hours an episode was in stark contrast to what the public were used to seeing, and even Colin Dexter, the author of the 13 novels upon which some of the television episodes are based, has acknowledged that the show was an unlikely success. Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub in 2007, Dexter told presenter James Naughtie in typically tongue-in-cheek fashion, “one of the huge things about Morse was that he came at the right time, when everyone wanted to get away from the American programmes where everybody was shooting and car chasing all over the shop. And somebody said, ‘what we want is something a little bit slower and more tedious. More gentle and – perhaps – more cerebral.’ Somebody wrote, right from the very word go, Dexter’s idea of any sort of thrill in a story was to get two aged classics professors arguing about Aristotle in the Sheldonian.”

This is a little harsh perhaps, (the first episode drew approximately 14 million viewers after all), however, you can see right from the very opening of, ‘The Dead of Jericho’ that this is to be different and that, in lead actor John Thaw, here is a leading man about to put to bed his reputation-defining turn as Jack Regan in The Sweeney.

This blog has looked at this wonderfully dated slice of action thriller elsewhere (Revisiting: The Sweeney) but contrasting the opening of the two shows is instructive. The Sweeney has rushing cars, handheld wobbly camera angles of gritty realism, tyres screaming and that famous title sequence theme tune booming electronica, like sirens through a 70s hangover, frantically edited.

As Morse opens there are quick edits too; a close up of a painting cuts to: some people in a choir, beginning to sing Vivaldi’s Gloria in excelsis Deo, a stark white on black title card announces:

title-card

Cut to: a close up of the moving bonnet of a red classic Jaguar, shiny polished chrome of the big cat gleaming.

morses-bonnet

We get our first look at Thaw, a serious look on his face.

serious-morse

The music swells, the car sails past like a stately ocean liner. As he passes, a sign on the wall reads: beware-morse

This is exactly the sort of instruction designed to insight maximum disobedience from Regan, not so for Morse. He pulls up.

Another cut:

dead-of-jericho

After a close up of a woman from the choir, we move again to such exciting action as: some men listening to tuneless electronica on a radio while they respray a car. You can tell they are baddies: they have appallingly out of context cockney accents for Oxford.

However, the class of the production is hinted at in shot of Morse from within the garage through the bolted doors. The intercutting of the classical with the crass modernity as signified by the music choices and locations continues before the impending victory of the law and order side is represented by the drowning out of the modern music and the man from inside realises that it’s a trap (“It’s da law!” he shrieks), men in hard hats sneak up and handcuff him to the door of his car.

In the days of Regan and The Sweeney this would have been the time he would have bounded out and traded blows with the “blaggers”. Here, he sits passively, while he is left trying to block the escape of the criminals.

There is a poignancy and clarity of symbolism in the ownership of this car by Morse. A Mark II Jaguar was so often used as the car of the criminals in the earlier series that later Thaw claimed that he had witnessed it being written off several times in The Sweeney and that allegedly, this was the reason Thaw was frequently seen in close-up driving the vehicle as it was being towed because it had broken down.

Here, the climax of the action is the criminals crashing into Morse’s car while he looks to the heaven’s being serenaded by the choir with an exasperated look on his face, as though the holy spirit of Regan and his physicality is finally being exorcised.

exasperated-thaw

And it is this change, this passive exorcism, which lies at the heart of Thaw’s performance as we see the final move between the 1970s rough and tumble to the leisurely pace and intellect of Morse and the 1980s.

In that same Bookclub interview James Naughtie describes Morse thus; “He’s grumpy, he’s odd, he’s lonely, he’s not always kind to people he loves underneath.” But he then asks, “Why do we warm to him?” Dexter replies, “I think quite a lot of the ladies would like to go to bed with him… but I think people enjoy Morse because he was sensitive and vulnerable to a certain extent. Never quite happy about life, but always wonderfully happy about his love of music and poetry.” Thaw is the constant embodiment of this duality; the soul of an artist, the tortured longing of the unfulfilled.

The programme ran until the year 2000, consistently drawing large audiences and spawned the spin off Lewis as well as the aforementioned Endeavour. Success does not always breed total fondness and even the British Film Institute’s (BFI) entry for the series on its Screenonline section has the slightly less than effusive Philip Wickham couching his praise in backhanded terms: “’Middlebrow’ is often used as a derogatory term in British culture… the series offers little that is new or challenging; it adopts the familiar patterns of the English ‘whodunnit’…No one could accuse the programme of being grittily realistic – Oxford’s murder rate rivalled the Bronx…There is a formulaic edge to the series that veers occasionally to parody.”

Not all of 1987 has aged as well as Inspector Morse. Oliver Stone’s Platoon, Chevy Chase’s Three Amigos! (and his post-Community career), A-ha’s Cry Wolf, The Housemartins’ Caravan of Love and Alison Moyet’s Is This Love were all near the top of the charts in their respective mediums and are all wearing the years more heavily than Morse. But, with his classic cars, his classical music and his preserved architecture, he was never of the time anyway, so he could scarcely be out it now.

Inspector Morse is well worth #revisiting and will surely reign supreme over domestic television crime fiction for at least 30 years more.

Mister Brunetti and the things that he is not

Is it really 23 years since first we  met? Who could not love Commisario Guido Brunetti and his loveable collection of family and colleagues?

Venice – it is traditional at this point to say that the city is as much a character in the novels as the humans,  – the city Brunetti navigates with as much detached san froid as he can muster as the murky world of Italian police work intrudes on his homelife.

Falling in love

Donna Leon’s 24th addition to the Brunetti series is Falling in Love

There are many theories as to why people read crime fiction – catharsis born of frustration at their own lives, vicarious wish-fulfillment to name but two – but there’s no doubt that Donna Leon’s characters buck the trend of the standard tropes found in the genre.

So much so, that to define the character of Brunetti, it may be easier to say what he is not.

Brunetti is not divorced. Married to a wonderful professor of literature, Paola. She may have been born into the Venetian nobility, but this rebellious left wing academic with a burning – necessarily unrequited – love of Henry James is mother to his children and always on hand to tease him, gently chide or act as a moral arbiter for Guido if he begins to stray too far from the path of righteousness. Paola can cause him problems, such as when, in fury at the authority’s lack of power to counter a sex tourism travel agency, she was driven to smashing the firm’s window with a brick, but she is almost always on hand to provide a sumptuous home cooked lunch or dinner.

Brunetti is not an alcoholic. Although, he is partial to a little tipple on his terrace at the end of a long day. Or lunch time. Or whenever the Veneziano weather will allow.

Brunetti is not fetishistic about the law.  As a Commisario of the Italian police, Brunetti is most often found examining his cases in terms of real politik – can something be done? If so, at what cost? And, how many favours will it cost a good man? If the answer to any of these is too much; then he may well let things slide. But never too far – after all, he still has to face Paola at the end of the day.

Brunetti is not estranged from his family. He has too children, Raffi and Chiara. They have not aged a great deal over the preceding near-quarter of a century, Raffi is a perpetual teen at university and still coming home to Mama, whilst Chiara has inherited his mother’s social conscience, but both children will still do the washing up after a family meal – even with a little grumbling.

Brunetti is not a lone wolf, or vigilante against the world. Guido relies heavily on a support network of colleagues, most notably his sergeant (later Ispettore) and friend Vianello, who plays Horatio to his Hamlet.

His greatest asset in his work – at least in terms of getting results – is the mysterious Signorina Elettra. His boss Vice-Questore Patta’s secretary, well connected and with a varied dating history, she spends the finances of the Questura on flowers to brighten her day and spends the rest of the time frightening Patta with her intelligence and Brunetti with her ability to circumnavigate the computer systems of the Italian state. Oh and the law, but she never seems to worry too much about that.

Brunetti

Some of the Brunetti books were adapted fro German television, apparently to Leon’s displeasure.

On the other hand, Brunetti is in conflict with his boss. One trope of the genre Guido does fit is his dislike of his boss. Vice-Questore Patta is vain, lazy and southern. Not a great combination in Brunetti’s opinion. He is joined by his subordinate brought along from Naples in the unlovely form of Lieutenant Scarpa who, over the course of the novels, has done nothing but snarl and act as a counter-weight to Brunetti and Vianello’s innate goodness.

Across a series this long, there is some variation in quality, for sure. The earliest novel, Death La Fenice was a promising start, but the series really hit its stride with a run that took Brunetti from a military academy in Uniform Justice to the famous glass works on Murano in Through a Glass Darkly.

Latterly, the novels feel like they have fallen into a comfy rhythm that pleases rather than pulsates on the reader’s palate. The latest novel, Falling in Love, is the 24th in the series and brings us back full circle to the opening opera-themed novel. And it’s fine. Not the best, not the worst.

But, if you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting the Brunettis, dip in. You’ll not be sorry.

Falling in Love is available from Amazon.co.uk