Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Scriptics: A.K.A. in The Children of the Fields

I know what you're thinking. It's been a couple of weeks, the Pouch has gone quiet, maybe all that made-up TV script nonsense has burnt itself out. A fair and reasonable assumption, but you would be wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Which brings me to today's 7TV series A.K.A.or Adam Kismet Associates.

You have no idea how long it took me to come up with a programme name with a decent acronym. The problem was, I'd already settled on the hero being called Adam Kismet and was within a hair's breadth of calling it either It's Adam Kismet! or AK-74, but they would both have been rubbish.

This series ever so slightly different from 7TV series like Department X or The Man from 2000 in that it's a bit harder to pin down any well-known 60s/70s real-TV forebears. Yes, we have a mysterious alpha male lead and a female co-star who is there for audience identification, plot exposition and of course, regular peril. But a mod mage who lives on an invisible bridge over the Thames, doing battle with witches, devils and undead spooks? That's a little more out there.

OK, I admit that I've heard of the children's series Ace of Wands featuring the magician Tarot, but I've never seen it. If anything, the none-more 1968 Adam Kismet - with his Lennon specs, Nehru jackets and chunky medallion - owes more to comic book master of the mystic arts Dr Strange, and even more specifically, to beatnik Strange-spoof Johnny Beyond, created by Alan Moore.

Enough banging on about my struggle to walk the tightrope between respectful pastiche and blatant rip-off. In the script extracts below, we meet the trendy mystic Adam and his government liaison Eloise Pargeter, some doomed policemen, some not so simple country folk, the bewitching Lady Winterly, and a bunch of living freaking scarecrows. I wrote this episode - the Children of the Fields - to upset fictional kiddies watching the show from behind their fictional sofas.

6.0 Colour
starring Simon Lee
The Children Of The Fields
A top government official is found dead in a country lane, his lungs full of grain. The local police seem baffled, but a vacationing Adam Kismet senses that all is not well down on the farm…
Adam Kismet .......................... ..... SIMON LEE
Ms Pargeter ....................... PAULA WILCOCKS
Lady Sylvia Winterly .......... INGRID PETROV
Mr Mangel ............................. DAVE PROUSE
Corn Dolly ......................... BRITT ELKLAND

Early on in the episode, a couple of plods demonstrate why you shouldn't follow pretty girls into wheatfields, unless it's a Flake advert. Oh, you'll see that I've given up putting the scripts in grey text, as it plays merry hell with the line breaks. Hopefully you'll be able to cope.

An attractive young lady wearing a simple white dress opens a large gate leading into a field. She glances over her shoulder at an approaching police patrol car, before disappearing into the tall rows of swaying wheat. The car comes to an abrupt halt by the gate. Sergeant PEVENSEY and Constable LAYTON climb out, peering into the field.

I’d swear that was her, Sarge. The girl from Winterly Grange!

That were three miles back down the road, lad. No chance she got here ahead of us, ‘less she ran like a March hare. You’ve got lasses on the brain.

LAYTON walks past the gate to the field’s edge, still peering intently through the wheat stalks.

LAYTON (to himself)
But it looked just like her…

PEVENSEY (coming up to stand by LAYTON)
Nothing in there but wheat and that old scarecrow.

PEVENSEY nods in the direction of a crude figure in a distant part of the field. Only its sack head and shoulders are visible above the crops. The wind briefly parts the wheat before the policemen to reveal a glimpse of the young lady once more, smiling enigmatically. LAYTON turns to PEVENSEY for confirmation.

Right enough lad. Come on!

They move as quickly as they can into the field, PEVENSEY walking straight ahead while he signals for LAYTON to circle round.

Out you come now, miss. We’ve some questions for you down the station.

But she disappears once more. The policemen have now moved out of sight of one another. The wind stirs the wheat around their faces. PEVENSEY pauses to take his bearings only to find that his feet have become entangled in the crops somehow. Muttering, he bends down to free himself, as a misshapen shadow falls over him. Some distance away, LAYTON starts with fright as he hears an eerie sound.

EFFECT: A woman’s laughter, rich and mature, echoes all around LAYTON.

Later on, Adam and Ms Kismet stumble onto a scene from Straw Dogs if it was written by Dennis Wheatley...

Sunset. A muddy farmyard full of rusty agricultural implements, hay bales and old sacks. ADAM Kismet and Ms PARGETER back awkwardly out of a farmhouse doorway, followed by a surly-faced local with a shotgun trained on them. An odd child leans out of an upper floor window and begins a chanting a rustic rhyme. Once ADAM and PARGETER have reached the centre of the yard, the farmer chuckles evilly and disappears back inside.

EFFECT: Door bolts being thrown.

Well, I’ll put him down as a Don’t Know, then.

ADAM seizes her arm as the lengthening rays of the setting sun come to rest on an innocuous heap of sacks and rags.

ADAM (squinting in concentration)
I think he’s the least of our worries. Look!

The heap begins to shift and unfold, as if by invisible strings. As ADAM and PARGETER stare in fascination and unease, it stretches and rises in jerky motions until a straw-filled CORN DOLL stands not ten feet from them. Its crudely slashed hemp mouth opens in a mockery of a grin. Ms PARGETER lets out an involuntary scream.

Come on!

He wrenches PARGETER after him and away from the CORN DOLL which begins spastically shuffling toward them, one tattered arm outstretched. The little girl’s rhyme continues above their heads. They flee to the open door of a barn seconds ahead of the CORN DOLL, and struggle to heave the door closed as the straw-filled horror collides against it. Muttering a mystic invocation under his breath, ADAM summons a deep reserve of strength and the door slams shut, propelling the CORN DOLL outside into the evening shadows.

That… was a scarecrow! A living scarecrow!

ADAM closes his eyes and holding his palm out as if sensing the air.

Yes, and it wasn’t alone.

EFFECT: Shuffling, dragging sounds from all around them.

Later still, Adam has fallen into the clutches of Lord Summerisle's female counterpart Lady Winterly, who manages to combine the age-old tradition of villain-gloating with a dollop of saucy lady seduction. Oh yes, and we meet Mr Mangel, a cross between Worzel Gummidge and that giant killing thingie from Creeping Flesh...

Night. The great feasting hall of Winterly Grange, lit only by candles and a fierce blaze crackling in the impressive fireplace. Landscapes, hunting scenes and portraits of the Winterly line cover the oak-panelled walls. A large sturdy dining table dominates the hall. It has been set for two – Lady Sylvia WINTERLY at one end and ADAM Kismet at the other. She is a striking woman with fine features, wearing a figure-hugging evening gown. ADAM has left his seat and stares out of a large leaded window at the ornamental gardens below, an expression of furious concentration on his face. Behind Lady WINTERLY’s seat, in the shadows, the gigantic inhuman form of her servitor Mr MANGEL looms.

WINTERLY (smiling)
You really should try the food before it goes cold. Cook has prepared an excellent game pie for the occasion.

ADAM (still looking out of the window)
You’re too kind, your ladyship. But “That which is not freely given-”

WINTERLY (finishing the proverb)
“- may ensnare the unwary.” Very good. You know the old laws.

Lady WINTERLY swivels out of her seat and rises to her feet, a flute of champagne in one hand. She moves toward ADAM. Mr MANGEL jerks to life as she does so, his razor sharp scythe catching the candle light.

Be at peace, my loyal one. Mr Kismet means me harm, isn’t that right Adam?

ADAM looks over his shoulder at her as she sways closer to him, a predatory look on her face. He grips his jade pendant tightly in one hand.

ADAM (sardonically)
A pity you haven’t seen fit to extend the same courtesy to my companion out there in your maze!

WINTERLY (dismissively)
The office girl? Put her out of your mind. She reeks of the city. Besides, my mummermen shall have her soon and she’ll be beyond all concern, returned to the good earth.

ADAM’s eyes flash green as he holds the jade pendant forth, flooding the great hall with a pure light. Lady WINTERLY hisses as if scalded.

So there y'go. Stop me before I script again.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Scriptics: Department X... And The Iron Menagerie

Ahoy-hoy. You may have thought that the previous post, inflicting my script-writing fetish upon you, was a one-off. A troubling but thankfully unique ordeal for us all to endure in the name of friendship. Oh no. There's a lot more where that came from and I don't intend to rest until you've been liberally doused with my literary juices. As the saying goes, I've suffered for my art and now it's your turn.

Today we introduce the 7TV show Department X, a sci-fi adventure series perhaps best described as Dr Who's UNIT featuring Jason King and Mrs Peel. Sort of. Lead character Dr Hugo Solomon is a brilliant scientist / swinging secret agent, with dashes of John Steed and Pertwee's Doctor stirred into the mix. And agent Pandora King is exceedingly Riggish. The whole thing's none more cult TV.

All of which brings us rather neatly, as Stephen Fry might say, to today's scriptic for Department X, which we like to call ...And The Iron Menagerie. Break out the Trebor Blobs and crack open a bottle of Corona orangeade as we take you back to the year 19xx:

5.45 Colour
Department X
starring David Werner
And The Iron Menagerie
Trapped behind enemy lines, Solomon and King discover their Russian captors are far more monstrous than they first feared...
Dr Hugo Solomon ............... DAVID WERNER
Pandora King ............................ JAN HENLEY
Grigori 'Mad ' Morov......... THOMAS BAKER
Andre ..................................... DAVE EDISON
Malachi .................................. STEVE THORN

In the following scenes, we meet Dr Hugo Solomon and Pandora King, agents for the Department for Extraordinary Affairs, or Department X as it better known. At the height of the Cold War, our heroes find themselves deep in Siberia, prisoners of the mad monk Grigori Morov and his bestial mutants, the Menagerie. This first scene is a bit sucky - years of reading 1960s Marvel comics have irrevocably affected my ability to write a realistic Soviet character...


A patrol of red army SOLDIERS makes it way slowly up through a mountain pass, laden down with weaponry and bulky winter clothing. The young CAPTAIN calls a halt whilst he consults a map, made all the more difficult by the howling wind and snow. He has to shout to his men.

The villagers claimed that this… ‘forbidden pass’ has been shunned for generations! Haunted they say, by spirits and abominable beasts!

The men stare back impassively, determined.

But we are soldiers of the Soviet Union of Socialist Republics, the greatest, most advanced power in the world! We are not backward farmers, living in fear of the Tsar’s ghost! We have orders to comb these passes for gulag escapees, and this will be done! Sergeant!

The SERGEANT, a grizzled veteran, steps forward.

Take four men and establish a radio post at the head of the valley! I will-

A distant bestial howl interrupts him. The soldiers bring their weapons up in various directions.

What is that? Wolf? Bear?

From out of the swirling snow, something large seizes the rearmost soldier and drags him away. The man screams briefly. The remaining soldiers start shouting and firing.

Comrade Captain! Orders!

The CAPTAIN does not answer, his attention having been taken up by something out of shot behind the SERGEANT. There is a strange growl close by, followed by gunshots and screams.

We return after the opening credits to find our will-they/won't-they co-stars in a bit of a pickle...


PANDORA awakes with a start. She is lying on a rough canvas bunk in a dimly lit cell. Her hair is attractively dishevelled. She brings her head up and looks about. SOLOMON is sat cross-legged on the floor opposite her. He smiles.

Oh, good morning. At least I think it’s morning; some scamp’s made off with my watch.

PANDORA (rolling to her feet)

Well, based on our heading and airspeed when we went down, we must be in Siberia, possibly Mongolia. And judging by the… (he places his fingertips against an ear)… air pressure, I should say we’re up around six thousand feet. Which would put us in the Sayan Mountains unless I’m very much mistaken.

Show off.

Although I must admit that being able to read that sign helped a bit.

He indicates some faded stencilled writing on the corridor wall outside the cell bars. It is in bold Cyrillic.

PANDORA (reading aloud)
“Sayan… research bunker one”. Oh, you cheat. Hello, someone’s coming.

SOLOMON grins mischievously and hops to his feet, as does Pandora.

Room service? About time, I’m a terror without my morning egg.

In the shadowy corridor outside, a bulky figure in overalls shuffles into view. He is hunched and broad, his head hidden from view by a large bucket over one hefty shoulder.

SOLOMON (mock casual)
Ah, jolly good. Two cappuccinos and a boiled egg please. Oh, and the latest issue of Punch if you have it.

I don’t think he understands you. Maybe Russian..?

SOLOMON (clears throat)
Dobre utra Tov-

The gaoler shuffles closer, turning so that his face is illuminated at last. His features are a terrible mixture of man and pig. The GRUNT’s all-too human eyes blaze with hatred as he wrinkles up his snout and emits a horrific semi-verbal squeal.

Go to break.

An exciting twist...


The insectoid scientist ANDRE has burst in on SOLOMON as he searches the laboratory – an odd combination of ageing chemical and electrical equipment, supplemented by some distinctly unearthly components.

ANDRE (chittering in English)
You again! Do not touch that equipment! It is fragile!

So sorry old chap, couldn’t help myself! Quite the set-up you have here – Geiger counter, genetic spectrometer, molecular syphon. Does the boss know what you’re up to here, hmm?

ANDRE (moving to readjust certain equipment)
I... do not understand. I am loyal to Morov, his great vision…

SOLOMON (twirling a screwdriver)
Oh pfft! You don’t have to be an expert in insect body language to see you’re lying through your mandibles! Though I am of course; wrote an article on ‘The Mendacious Bee’ back in ‘fifty-eight.

You speak in riddles, strange one! Why should I not call for the grunts right now?

Because if you did that, my chitinous chum, I’d simply have to tell your beloved master Morov about all the fascinating little devices you’ve built yourself here.

SOLOMON picks up a decidedly alien piece of technology and uses it to point out similar gadgets.

I mean really, you may have His Madness and the other poor souls down here fooled, but these gadgets of yours are alien, aren’t they?

ANDRE begins to flap about the lab nervously.

Just as alien as you!

And the thrilling set-piece climax...


The mad prophet Grigori MOROV stands before the meteorite spacecraft and addresses his loyal flock of followers, composed of the brutish apeman MALACHI, a squad of porcine GRUNTs and a handful of twisted MUTOIDs. Lurking outside a half-open door to the rear are Dr Hugo SOLOMON and a group of silent OCTONs.

MOROV (intoning)
My people! My glorious followers! Now is the time of testing, of tribulation!

The GRUNTs and MALACHI snort and growl in agreement.

Heretics have come among us, sowing discord, whispering blasphemous lies. But the world beyond is ash, I tell you! All is ash! Only this haven, this sacred refuge from the ruins of man is untouched, pure!

SOLOMON (whispering)
Incredible, he really does believe his own fantasy. The powers the radiation gave him, they must have driven him quite mad.

The OCTONs nod slowly.

Now let the heretic and the unbeliever be brought forth so that they may stand before the cleansing light of the Great Relic and be purged of their lies!

From a side door, more GRUNTs drag in a struggling PANDORA and a passive ANDRE.

No! Andre’s immune to his ship’s toxic field, but PANDORA’s as vulnerable as any other human! There’s no telling what it will do to her!

SOLOMON draws his alien pistol and charges into the church.

There it is. The episode probably ends with an action-packed fight to the death between humans, mutants, mad monks and aliens. You won't be able to move for dodgy rubber masks and scenery chewing dialogue. Hopefully.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Scriptics: The Man From 2000 in The Year of the Monkey

As we all know, blogs were put here by God to enable pretentious, partially-talented underacheivers to indulge their delusions of literary competence without having to go through all the effort and trauma of trying to get something published the proper way. That's certainly why I'm here anyway.

Strange then that it's taken me so long to inflict my tedious attempts at fiction on you, barring that weird story about a big fat cat. Put it down to a vestigial fragment of dignity on my part, or else not wanting to waste any more of your valuable time than is necessary. We both know you have some important Facebooking to get back to. You know it's true.

Anyone, as I believe I've amply demonstrated, can knock out observational 'grumpy old bugger' blogs, or wail on about how their childhood was so horrible. Again, I know this because I've done so time and time again, to all our costs. Just bung in a few pop-culture references as a shout-out to your geek friends and before you can say 'Charlie Brooker's Screenwipe' you're rocking out a meandering middle-aged moanathon worthy of a Times magazine columnist.

Hence I have decided to step outside my comfort zone, as appalling people managers up and down the country might say, and shower upon you some of my fictional fruits. Like Hobson's banana or the rare pineapple of Timor. Many of us will claim to have a novel inside them, or more likely the first few chapters of a never-to-be-finished novel sticking out of them at an awkward angle. I however appear to have fragments of scripts for fictional television shows from the 1960s and 1970s inside me, as I now intend to demonstrate...

A wee bit of background, so you don't think I've gone entirely off my rocker. Some chums of mine produce a rather fine wargame-cum-roleplaying game called 7TV, wherein the players control rival squads of 28mm  heroes and villains, in miniature battles intended to evoke cult television shows of yesteryear. Influences range from The Sweeney to classic Who to The Avengers, with dashes of Hammer horror and Quatermass thrown in for good measure.

In my role as unofficial 7TV hanger-on, I've managed to parasitically attach myself to the boys' efforts, contributing supplementary flavour text, charmingly known among the wargaming community as 'fluff'. If you were to flick through the 7TV rulebook, you'd notice lots of retro text boxes that look like they were cut out of a Radio Times from 1974. They're my bits, as are the odd pages of what appear to be dog-eared old scripts from such long lost shows as Department X, A.K.A. and my personal favourite, The Man From 2000 (in which a futuristic traveller from the distant year 2000 comes back in time to battle scientific nutjobs). I have no idea what one might call one-page scripts for TV shows that never existed, so I'm calling them scriptics until someone comes up with something better. Suggestions welcome.

The Man From 2000 features the amnesiac Darius, an enigmatic gentleman of prodigious mental abilities and somewhat abrasive manner, who along with the personnel of Project: Time Lift (hey, somebody had already bagsied Tunnel...) like the plucky young Samantha Bridge or the blustering bureaucrat Sir Benton Troad, pits his wits against 'science gone mad' on a weekly basis. It's kind of Time Tunnel meets the Prisoner meets Adam Adamant. We even got as far as debating which actors might actually have played Darius et al had the show existed four decades ago; see if you can work out who we had in mind.

So here we go: some scriptics for The Man From 2000. This episode is called The Year of the Monkey (I know, cool or what) with a 7TV Times episode guide a little like this:

8.45 Colour

The Man From 2000
starring Ted Bishop
The Year Of The Monkey
When a number of research facilities are attacked by unknown forces, Darius and the professor are called in to investigate. Their only clue: a small hairy man sighted in the area at the time of each incident.
Darius ......................................... TED BISHOP
Professor Plantagenet ........ JEFFREY BAILDON
Samantha Bridge ................ PAULINE OLLINS
Ann-Marie Goodall ..................... LIZ LADEN
Professor Andros .............. PHILLIP MADDOX
Straker ................................. JOHN CHALICE

And now for your viewing pleasure, let me take you back to the year 19xx, when the British viewer could rely on their weekly helping of telefantasy being served up with cheesy sexist dialogue, whopping dollops of exposition and female assistants twisting their ankles just as the monster lumbers into shot...


The cluttered study of the missing Professor ANDROS. Books and paper cover nearly every surface of the shelves, desk and floor. DARIUS, the Man from 2000, is squatting in the centre of the room, his expression one of deep thought, his fingers steepled before his face. ANN-MARIE Goodall, the zoologist, is shuffling through some of the academic papers on the desk. She still wears a small wound dressing on her forehead from the earlier incident.

There's not much here… though it's hard to tell with all this mess. Professor Andros clearly doesn't believe in the tidy desk, tidy mind approach. Darius?

DARIUS ignores her, still concentrating on something. ANN-MARIE watches him from where she is standing, with some confusion.

Are you alright?

Without looking up or changing expression, DARIUS responds to her at last.

Mess, disorder. Perhaps on the surface. To the twentieth century mind. But look beyond the seeming chaos and you will see hidden patterns. There (He points to a pile of books and papers without looking) every published work of Dr Gillespie, the first victim. There (He points elsewhere) newspaper cuttings on research facilities, grouped geographically. There (He points again) a collection of seemingly unrelated treatises on electro-cerebral stimulation, learning patterns in infants and… the communication habits of the great apes.

(Bemused) But I still don't see what's so important about all of that. (As she speaks, she moves around the study, looking at the papers indicated by DARIUS) The professor's a primatologist, so he's bound to have books on the subject. We know he knew Dr Gillespie from Cambridge, and given all the recent attacks on scientific labs it's only natural that he may have kept some news clippings about the break-ins, in case he was next.

Look again.

ANN-MARIE picks up the newspaper clippings and flicks through them, peering closely. She gasps.

These are all from before the break-ins! Why would Professor Andros want to know about the laboratories before they were attacked?

DARIUS stands up smoothly and turns to face her.

You see the anomaly then. The timing. Order is everything. Andros makes note of the facilities, then they are broken into. Coincidence perhaps? The mere random fancy of a scientific mind?

They look at each other for a moment.

Now look at the room again. What else do you see?

ANN-MARIE turns about the study looking up and down.

I don't know… books, the desk, clutter everywhere…

Everywhere but there.

He indicates a clear area on the otherwise cluttered floor – a rough triangular area against one wall.

Why leave that area clear? Unless it had to be kept clear.

ANN-MARIE moves over to the clear area, looking first at the floor and up at the study wall. She brings a hand up to touch the wall.

You mean, there's a secret door here! But (She feels all over the section of wall) I can't find any sort of handle, not even a hidden one.

Stand back.

DARIUS concentrates on the wall, focussing his psychic powers. CLOSE-UP on his face. ZOOM on the wall.

EFFECT: high-pitched electronic whine.

The section of wall swings open toward ANN-MARIE with an audible click.

You opened it! But how?

(Moving past her and through the opening in the wall) Telekinesis. The ability to affect objects at a distance. Elementary for the advanced mind.

DARIUS pauses in the gloom beyond the opening and looks back over his shoulder at ANN-MARIE, who is hovering indecisively.

Come on. Don't you want to know where this leads?

And a few scenes later...


A featureless series of corridors, branching irregularly at right-angles. It is lit from above at intervals, leaving pools of darkness in between. DARIUS rests against a wall, breathing heavily and looking back down the corridor. His Time Lift jumpsuit is dirty and torn. He looks down at a large tranquiliser dart stuck in his arm. Grimacing, he plucks the dart out and brings it close to his eye.

POV – DARIUS: from his viewpoint, the shot of the dart swims and distorts. He has been drugged.

DARIUS flings the dart to the floor, pushes himself away from the wall, and staggers along the corridor.

The electronic voice of Professor ANDROS crackles out from concealed speakers.

Still standing, Mr Darius? Impressive. That tranquiliser dart was strong enough to put a bull gorilla to sleep. As it is, I'd be surprised if you can walk straight, let alone negotiate the little obstacle course I've set out before you.

DARIUS staggers to a junction. He looks left and right, unsure which way to go.

(Mockingly) Left or right, left or right? Surely one's as good as the other, don't you think?

DARIUS looks up and behind him, as if searching for the source of the speakers.

Come along. I've seen three-month old orangutans come to a decision faster than you.

DARIUS tries to concentrate his psychic powers but can't focus. He shakes his head and lurches down one corridor. He makes it to a corner and leans against the wall to catch his breath.

From a concealed panel, the professor's loyal lieutenant STRAKER emerges, dressed in a safari suit and carrying a hunting rifle. STRAKER brings the rifle to his shoulder and takes aim at DARIUS. ZOOM on DARIUS. As STRAKER fires, DARIUS finally notices STRAKER and ducks, the bullet barely missing him.

EFFECT: bullet hole in wall, shower of dust on DARIUS.

As DARIUS stumbles away, STRAKER works the rifle to load another round.

A lucky miss, lucky for you. Consider that a warning shot. The next time you pause, Mr Straker will shoot to wound. The time after that? Well.

DARIUS stumbles down two more corridors, not stopping to look. Then a set of solid metal bars drop down from the ceiling, blocking him. DARIUS collides with this barrier, grips the bars, then uses them to support himself. Behind him STRAKER's footsteps are distant but getting closer.

I designed this obstacle to test an ape's strength. You know an adult chimpanzee is roughly twice as strong as a man?

DARIUS struggles in vain to lift the bars. He looks over his shoulder to a bend in the corridor – the distorted shadow of STRAKER grows larger. He steps back from the barrier, straightens up as best he can and takes a deep breath. Then he teleports past the barrier.

EFFECT: Freeze shot on DARIUS. Short reverse-explosion sound effect.

DARIUS relocates on other side of barrier. DARIUS falls down on all fours, exhausted by the exertion of teleporting.

I imagine… you haven't seen a chimpanzee… get past it… that way.

Remarkable! Your futuristic enhancements are all I'd heard them to be! You truly are a marvellous specimen sir! I shall value our later time together in the laboratory greatly. You, I fear, will not enjoy it so much.

A shot rings out and DARIUS flinches as STRAKER shoots at him through the bars. The bullet grazes DARIUS' leg as he rises to his feet and moves on.

(Annoyed) Hold still and take your bullet like a man. (Shouting as DARIUS moves further off) I'll make the next one painless!

DARIUS turns a corner and staggers round more bends until he abruptly comes to a dead-end, terminating in a mirrored wall. He reels to a halt and stares at his own wild-eyed reflection.

The ability to recognise ourselves is one of the key indicators of self-awareness, you know.

DARIUS spins round, only to find that other mirrored walls have sprung up around him, sealing him in a chamber of multiple reflections. His eyes dart about.

That crucial, unique sense of self, of 'I'. It's what I've tried to instil in all my test subjects.

DARIUS attempts an energy blast, stretching out a shaking hand at a mirror. But he is too weak and cannot muster the power. He turns around and around.

POV - DARIUS: a series of distorted funhouse mirror reflections of DARIUS in swift succession.

The knowledge of what is 'I' and what is not. The self from the reflection, The true from the false.

POV – DARIUS: among the series of distorted images, one looks different, its face somehow inhuman.

DARIUS steadies himself and tries to focus on the odd reflection. The Time Lift jumpsuit is the same, but the face is that of an ape! As DARIUS' eyes widen in shock, the APE-MAN lunges forward out of the false mirror and grapples with him.

Do you see? (Laughter)

DARIUS rocks backward, but the APE-MAN has both hairy hands on his throat, its leering monkey face mere inches from him. Its ape-like hooting merges with ANDROS' electronic laughter, as DARIUS' eyes roll up.

Roll credits.

There y'go. Hopefully it made some kind of sense and felt like the sort of thing you might have watched between Basil Brush and Parkinson. Add a Ron Grainer soundtrack and some cheap camera tricks for the full effect. Then get someone else to rewrite it and we might just have ourselves a show. Enquiries from Radio Four Extra commissioning editors welcome.

Sunday Evening Fever

Hello. As some of you may be aware, my long and often fractious association with my employer United Amalgamated Consolidated reached its natural conclusion some months ago. It was an amicable split; we had just grown apart really. Well that, and one of us was several billion quid in the red and needed to shed as many overpaid IT drones as they could licketty split.

This means that for the last four months I have been enjoying a rather splendid summer holiday. My first break lasting longer than two weeks in almost twenty years. And let me tell you it’s been bloody brilliant. Getting up when I want, making the day up as I go along, holidaying all over the British Isles and beyond, and generally bimbling around. I’ve written stuff, drawn things, made jewellery and done some gardening. I even very nearly did some decorating. It’s got to the stage that I’ve actually started to lose the ability to tell the difference between weekends and weekdays. Not unlike being a school teacher in the summer holidays.

About ten days ago that all changed when I got a serious job offer. Now I wake up every morning around 5am, my stomach churning and my pulse racing. I live in fear of checking my email or answering my mobile, in case it’s the recruitment agency with another contract for me to sign. Or an identity vetting form to fill in. Or an employment scheme to opt out of. Or in. I lose track.

The point being I haven’t even started the job yet, and my body’s telling me in no uncertain terms that I hate it. I hate the idea of getting up early again, driving fifty miles and across two counties to another characterless office block full of several thousand suits. I hate meeting new people and trying to remember their names, having to try and make friends with people, not knowing where the toilets are or how the drinks machine works or which bits are self-service in the cafeteria. I hate the prospect of finding myself once more completely out of my depth technically (my CV, whilst truthful in my length of experience and breadth of skills, fails to fully explain that as a programmer I’m very much of the ‘pinch some old code that already works or ask a clever person for help’ school) and embarrassing myself in front of a whole new set of work colleagues.

In short, I’m terrified and sickened by the thought of starting another techie job in a big company. Hate it. Feel ill and wobbly. Not sleeping properly and counting every last day of freedom like a Death Row inmate. I want my summer holiday back. Don’t want to go back to school.

I’ve always been like this; the fear of institutional routines, of new things. I distinctly remember being almost physically sick on the last Sunday evening of every school holiday. Couldn’t bear to think about getting up on the Monday morning, putting on the hated uniform and pretending to enjoy the company of several hundred children and adults, maybe two of whom I would actually speak to during the day. For the same reason I never got a Saturday job or a paper round, never joined a youth group, never went on the school exchange trips abroad, dropped out of the scouts, cravenly turned my friend Bobby down when he asked me to help at the PHAB club, and only did one dance production and only then because Amanda asked me really nicely.

I’m a terror for dropping out of things, or better yet not joining in the first place. It must be a sort of peoplophobia thing, I suppose. My secret strategy down the years has been to gradually assemble a handful of friends who I really get on with and basically hope that they drag me along to stuff so I won’t be going on my own. This has to a large extent worked socially, although sadly job hunting for me remains a terrifying solo gig with nary a wingman in sight.

OK, clearly this is not the worst thing in the world – there are gazillions of people worse off than me and I have no goddam right bemoaning the fact that in these straitened times I have a well-paying job. I understand that. But being that this is a blog, the spiritual home of the self-indulgent wallow, hear me out.

I took the job because a) it’s the only one I’ve been offered in four months of unemployment, and it’s kinda nice to think that somebody wants to employ me (even if they’re about to take on a distinctly average code monkey, skillswise), b) I felt pretty much obliged to socially (who turns down a job these days? You’d have to be nuts or a millionaire and at best I’m only one of those) and c) once the process of the job application had passed the offer/acceptance phase (which I barely noticed at the time) it now seems somehow rude of me to back out at the eleventh hour. So, much like the ‘Mark gets married to Sophie’ plotline from Peep Show, I’m basically taking a long term contract because it would be too embarrassing to say no. See my Englishness ooze from every pore.

This leaves me in the odd position of praying that I somehow fail the company’s vetting process – the only way I’m going to avoid taking the job now without me having to do anything (which is out of the question, obviously). Given my exotic back history, failing the vetting is not wholly unlikely, though I’m considering quickly logging on to LinkedIn and giving myself some appalling references. Hey, you never know, this very blog might do the trick if I get it posted up in time. Fingers crossed eh?

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Review - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Century: 1969

(or, The League of One Bossy Woman)
by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

First off, I should assert that I have a great love for the concept of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics, and am rather fond of the first two series, especially series two, pitting the likes of Captain Nemo, Mr Hyde, Allan Quatermain and Mina Murray (formerly Harker) against the Martian war machines of The War of the Worlds. Really, what’s not to love about Hyde taking on the tripods on London Bridge, doing a little song and dance number as he goes down in flames?

Hyde has a martian for a tea...
The greatest heroes, heroines and villains of 19th century fantasy, united in one Victorian super-team. Genius.

Love the idea, love the early stuff. Dr Moreau’s horrific ursine experiment Rupert – a monstrous anthropomorphic polar bear in soiled red jersey and tattered checked yellow trousers. Nemo blowing away a Cairo mob with his version of the General Electric minigun from Predator. The distinctly unromantic aftermath of a sexual encounter between the (literally) scarred Mina Murray and Allan Quatermain, a man some decades her senior. Almost everything the Invisible Man gets up to, but particularly when he sells the Earth out to the Martians by drawing stick figures in the dirt. What Hyde ultimately does to the Invisible Man. Marvellous. They should make it into a film some day...

This Never Happened.
Then came The Black Dossier – an impressive straight to hardback edition which filled in some of the gaps in the League’s history: their clash with France’s Hommes Mysterieux above and below Paris; the long, long life of Orlando, the immortal, gender flipping warrior; Lovecraftian adventures with Bertie Wooster (“What Ho, Gods of the Abyss”); Orwell’s Big Brother and much, much more. Any work that manages to weld Billy Bunter, James Bond, Mrs Peel and Bulldog Drummond into a coherent British spy-mythos without devolving into excitable fan-fic or dry Wold Newtonian pseudo-scholarship is a winner in my book.

It’s the linking story in The Black Dossier which lets the side down a little. Essentially, Mina and Allan, unrecognisable in their 1950’s incarnations courtesy of Mr Kevin O’Neill, kind of run around a slightly Dan Dare-ish Britain for a while with a book under one arm until they hitch a lift in a giant golly’s air balloon. OK, so they do have some fights with Peel, Bond and Drummond, and manage to steal Fireball XL5’s predecessor. But our two protagonists also talk a lot. Or argue. As do their pursuers. There are a lot of panels of Alan and Mina walking along, too many I should say. And the book ends with some mystic waffle from Shakespeare’s Prospero in the other-dimensional Blazing World, which does go on a bit.

The trend continues in books 1 and 2 of Century – an interlinked 3-part series taking the League from 1910 to 1969. Book 1 is a single contained story - which is good - told in the right sequence – also good. But, and I’m writing from memory here, not a great deal happens given the length of the thing. Mina bosses around the latest incarnation of the League (a rejuvenated Quatermain, a male Orlando, the gentleman thief Raffles and Karnack the ghost-finder). An Aleister Crowley-surrogate cackles a bit. Some bird sings bits of The Beggar’s Opera. And Nemo’s daughter gets the ache and shells the Port of London from the Nautilus. Yeah, it probably sounds groovy and action-packed to you when lumped into one paragraph. Not so much when spread out over 70-plus pages of a comic book. Well, not by my standards anyway. Maybe I’m just greedy.

Mina anxiously awaits the invention of tit tape.
The situation is little improved book 2, set in 1969. It came in the post a while ago, and having waited far too long for the book to be published, I read it through in a slavering rush. But while the setting is new for the League (flower power, faux Rolling Stones, Jack Carter on the prowl and psychedelic freak-outs), the same old less interesting plot elements are there: Mina is a bossy cow, recognisable only by her scarf; Allan is a whiny puss, recognisable only by standing next to Mina; Orlando is an arse, mired in his/her anecdotage and polyamorous romps; and the faux-Crowley (Fauxley?) villain is a bit naughty, though his life-prolonging scheme is wicked but hardly on a par with all-out war between Moriarty and Fu Manchu, or a Martian Invasion (series one and two respectively).

I reached the end and my overall impression was that there had been an awful lot of chat again, and not enough action, at least not by the supposed heroes. They tended to walk around a lot and react rather feebly when it all kicked off. I think the problem lies primarily in Alan Moore’s choice of characters for his later League stories. The group in the first two series was comprised of a militaristic Sikh warlord (Nemo), a sociopathic Invisible Man, an ageing opium-fiend (Allan Quatermain) and Mr freaking Hyde, all kept in line by the little woman out of Dracula, played like a tough rape survivor. But in a way, Mr Moore shot his bolt early by taking Hyde, Nemo and the Invisible Man out of the picture back in 1899, leaving us with the bossy bird but no monsters to boss around. And once she and Quatermain take a dip (off-camera) in the fountain of youth, we are doomed to a visually unchanging couple at the centre of all subsequent stories. Quatermain in particular is rendered rather bland as a generic brown haired young bloke – I miss the grizzled old bugger of the 1890s, white goatee and all.

Oh look, they're walking and talking. Again.
Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with the concept of a Strong Woman at the centre of events, but Mina’s earlier role in the League was balanced by the absolutely psychotic monstrosities she had to continually stare down out of sheer chutzpah. Take the Extraordinary freaks out of the League and all you’re left with is a group of all-too human Gentlemen (and -women). With one book of the Century story to go, I am rather hoping Messrs Moore and O’Neill take a leaf out of their own earlier works and inject a little more action-packed monsteraceousness into the League, and a little less of “Mina’s Great, All The Blokes Are Rubbish”. We shall see.

P.S. The text story at the back mentions the Clangers in passing, which very nearly makes it all better.

They're related to the Wombles, you know...

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Tales of the Shadowmen 2 – a guide

Hello. I’ve just finished reading a book of short stories. An anthology I suppose. I really don’t know. I ought to look up what constitutes an anthology sometime, but I don’t want to lose my train of thought.
The anthology in question is Tales of the Shadowmen volume 2 : Gentlemen of the Night. Quite a mouthful I’m sure you’ll agree, and one that should have given me pause before purchasing it, recalling Chelmer’s third law of publishing (“The longer the title, the more amateur the content”)*.

Regardless, I ordered it off my Amazon wish list, using up a slice of the generous gift voucher my ex-colleagues at United Amalgamated Consolidated had sent me off with some time ago. My reasons for acquiring the book elude me slightly now, some months down the line, but it must have been something to do with my on again/off again flirtation with gothic horror, pulp fiction and that peculiar pick&mix genre of ‘Hey, what if Sherlock Holmes met Dracula?’ type stories that have given us The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the Wold Newton shared universe, and Popeye Meets the Man who Hated Laughter (you’ll probably just have to trust me on that last one).

Shadowmen 2, as I’m now going to refer to it, is a collection short stories based on largely French characters from 19th and early 20th century fiction, some of whom you may have heard of, others I truly believe have not seen the light of print for a good hundred years or more. Most of the characters originate from the adventure/fantasy/detective/scientifiction corner of the bookshop, it is true – you’re more likely to find Quasimodo or D’Artagnan here than Jean Valjean or Valmont – and that’s certainly one of the main reasons I picked it up.

All the stories are written in English, thank God. Don’t think for one moment I can manage any story in French longer than the page and a half of Vas-Y Gaiment that it took to describe what happened when Toutou a disparu. Moreover, a good proportion of the authors are English speakers (or at least American), and the genuine French (and French-Canadian) contributors have either pretty decent English themselves or access to fair translators. At any rate, all the stories are perfectly readable from a language point of view. I don’t even know why I’ve bothered to mention it as much as I have. I’ll stop now.

So, onto the stories themselves. It occurred to me, about halfway through a particularly tiresome chapter, that a future reader of this volume might find it useful if I were to furnish them with a short guide to each story, a mini-review if you will, so that they might avoid wasting their time on the turkeys, and even skip over the boring bits of the decent tales. Sacrilege? Maybe, but have you ever, honestly, picked up an anthology and found that each and every story was worth your while? I haven’t.

Of course, the following guide will only be of use if you happen to have exactly the same taste in fiction as I, and pretty much the same 21st century impatience with ‘the boring bits’. I mean, if I pick up another novel that wastes the first page and a half describing the countryside before getting on with the story (see every Wheel of Time book), I’ll- I dunno – I’ll probably go tch and skip to the first bit of dialogue. I guess what I’m driving at here is that this will only be useful to my brother, who will be the recipient of my dog-eared copy of Shadowmen 2, whether he likes it or not.

I suppose I ought to put in a spoiler warning at this point, in the astronomically remote event of a) anyone reading this, b) that same person subsequently reading Shadowmen 2, and c) that rare individual being at all bothered about what I’m going to say. So: SPOILER. There you go.

Ex Calce Liberatus, by Matthew Baugh
Told entirely in letter form, which I have never entirely warmed to (you could cut a lot of the Mina/Lucy fluff out of Dracula for a start), this revolves around a wax museum, a foolish French inspector and a sword maguffin. Oh, and the master thief Arsène Lupin. You’d better like reading about Lupin, because he appears in about half the Shadowmen 2 stories. It’s okay, I suppose; the Japanese detective character is quite good, but the involvement of Lupin is a character too many, not to mention Sir Lancelot (yes, really).

Trauma, by Bill Cunningham
Now this is more my ideal length of story. It’s one page long. Inspector Maigret interviews a young boy about a murder by the master criminal (there are a lot of master criminals in French fiction, it seems) Fantômas. The young boy will grow up to be the Green Hornet. Short and sweet, a sort of alternative Batman origin.

The Eye of Oran, by Win Eckert
This Casablancesque offering is one of the weaker entries, and probably the one that prompted me to write this guide in the first place. It’s also the most Wold Newtony of all the stories, by which I mean you’ve got a whole bunch of characters from multiple adventure and detective tales running around, including fabricated descendants like Violet Holmes, niece of the consulting detective (honestly). This can often end up as a bit of a fan-fiction indulgence, as in this case. He even manages to squeeze in Doc Ardan (a French Doc Savage rip-oeuf) and the inevitable Lupin involvement, though the passing reference to Conan’s lover Bêlit does redeem it slightly.

The Werewolf of Rutherford Grange, by G L Glick
This is another iffy one, not least because it is the second part of a story that was started in Shadowmen 1, which I haven’t read. I’m pretty sure that contravenes another of Chelmer’s laws of publishing. It’s also too long at fifty pages, or at least too light on content to keep me interested for fifty pages. Essentially a bunch of people run around a house while a magical beastie periodically turns up and mauls someone. There’s a nothingy American detective called Harry Dickson, his Indian mate, a smattering of Agatha Christie extras and a turbaned mystic called Sâr Dubnotal who directs the action in an annoyingly Dr Whoish manner. Mainly too long and too many characters. And Sâr Dubnotal is a silly name.

Dr Cerral’s Patient, by Rick Lai
The best I can say about this story is that at 14 pages it didn’t eat up much of my time. It also didn’t leave a great impression on me for good or ill. It was something to do with an unscrupulous doctor (of course), murders at a girls’ boarding school and something to do with hand transplants. So far so good you may think, but it’s actually quite confusing, is largely structured as a dialogue explaining stuff that has already happened off-stage, and again manages to crowbar in a Lupin nod. Blah.

A Suite of Shadowmen, by various
A series of one-page vignettes featuring various popular characters accompanied by scribbled caricatures by Argentinian artist Fernando Calvi. The drawings are not all to my taste, but at least they and the vignettes don’t take up much space. Best skimmed.

Be Seeing You!, by Xavier Maumejean
This pleasingly short piece entertains the notion that a certain Village for detained persons of interest was in use as far back as 1912, and furthermore that a noted consulting detective spends a brief time there, earning himself the sobriquet Number Six. A neat little tale, though bordering on the cute and very much in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vein. And while it does feature the inevitable Lupin (in a submarine), there is a steam-driven Rover for our hero to flee from down the beach, which is nice.

The Vanishing Diamonds, by Sylvie Miller and Philippe Ward
A silly story in which HG Wells’ time traveller, relaxing at his club with Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo and the Invisible Man (how did they come up with those particular characters?) accepts a bet from Henry Baskerville to investigate an anomaly in Dumas’ version of events in The Three Musketeers. Not my cup of tea.

A Jest, To Pass the Time, by Jess Nevins
Given Mr Nevins’ role as the author of guides to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s no great surprise to see him featured here, nor that his contribution is a wonder of research into some less-than renowned characters from French fiction. The story though is little more than a pass-the-parcel black comedy, wherein the maguffin of Wilke Collins’ moonstone is snatched first from the Louvre, and subsequently from a series of master criminals, one after another. Entertaining, though I only recognised Fantômas, Zenith and Raffles of the seemingly endless rogue’s gallery portrayed here. Oh yes, guess which master criminal had the moonstone all along? Arsène bloody Lupin of course.

Angels of Music, by Kim Newman
Now, I generally love Kim Newman’s work, especially his Anno Dracula stuff – Dr Jack Seward is actually Jack the Ripper, killing vampire prostitutes? Brilliant! And this story is based on no less cute a conceit: that Erik, the Phantom of the Opera, rather than orchestrating a one-man campaign of musical terror, instead assembles three remarkable ladies who he despatches on various thrilling missions. Brilliant again, even if I did have to look up who Trilby O’Ferrall was. But it does go on quite a bit, with perhaps a scene or two too many. You can’t go too far wrong with evil clockwork mannequins though.

The Incomplete Assassin, by John Peel
No, not that John Peel. This short story involves the ballet, Russian revolutionaries and the dullest of French pulp characters: Roulletabille the journalist. A man is shot at the ballet. Roulletabille dresses up as the murdered man and catches the assassin at the hospital. That’s really it.

Annus Mirabilis, by Chris Roberson
It took me a couple of read-throughs, and some diligent wikipeding (that is a verb, honest), to fully appreciate this Doctor Omega story, but it’s worth the effort. Unlike the other stories, I will resist spoiling it for you other than to recommend it for being short and quite clever.

Legacies, by Jean-Louis Trudel
This is probably the archetypal Shadowmen story, as it features a jewel theft in Paris, the reporter Roulletabille and Arsène feckin’ Lupin. Just skip it.

The Grey Men, by Brian Stableford
The final entry in Shadowmen 2 is an odd one, not least because like the earlier Werewolf story, it is incomplete, being part one of The Empire of the Necromancers, if you please. Thanks to the introduction, I learnt that is a sequel of sorts to a little known thriller from 1861 called John Devil, and features many of that near-forgotten novel’s characters, primarily a resourceful short chap called Ned Knob (worth it for his name alone). It takes a while to get going properly, and is a bit bloody long at sixty-plus pages, but if you skip over all the needless recaps of what happened in the original story, it’s actually quite a good weird science/zombie/gothic adventure with a few good action sequences. I think it’s a sort of sequel to Frankenstein on the sly, but I could be wrong.

So, yeah. Possibly the least mainstream fiction review you will read for some time. Move over, Richard and Judy’s book club.

* Made up.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Desert Island Drawings

Time to get all Brian Sewelly on you and talk Art. Close personal friends will know that I am not a great fan of the Old Masters and their ilk. The closest I ever got to enjoying a piece of proper art was at a J.W. Waterhouse exhibition a couple of years ago where I tried to spot all the hidden witches, ghosts and toads in The Magic Circle.

No, I thought I’d tell you about artists that I personally like for various reasons. You might even say that they’re influential, but that would pretentiously suggest that I’m an artist myself, which I amn’t. So let’s just say that these are artists that I dig. I dig their style, their subject matter and usually the memories they evoke.

I dashed this list off yesterday in about five minutes, so it’s by no means exhaustive. I could’ve gone on about my many, many favourite comic book artists, but I tried to broaden this out and cover a slightly wider field of artist. Not amazingly wide as you will see. No Banksys or Emins or Hirsts here, but a decentish selection of my Desert Island Drawings. Maybe you’ll dig them too.

1) Ben Eine
I know, I know. I said No Banksys and here I am with another street artist. But I beg your indulgence on account of having walked past Ben Eine’s art twice a day every day for two years. His Alphabet Street letters cover 26 metal shop shutters along the length of Middlesex Street, which I would pass on my way to and from work. I liked how jolly and colourful they were, and it was fun watching each letter spring up overnight as the weeks went by. It gives the place a colourful Sesame Street feel, minus the giant forlorn yellow bird (sadly).

Come and play, everything's A-OK...

2) Hannes Bok
What a cool name. I mean, if I knew nothing of the man’s artwork, I’d still love him for his name. Pseudonym actually, but more power to him for choosing something that sounds like a cross between a Dutch painter and a Hyborian necromancer. I came across his artwork in one of those massive ‘Fantasy of the 20th Century’ coffee table books that parents and rich friends might give you as presents, but which are too damn big for your Billy bookcase. Check out his wraparound cover for The Wheels of If (1948). It looks positively psychedelic, predating Steve Ditko’s freaky dark dimension art for Dr Strange by fifteen years. I love how his style, unlike most other fantasy cover artists, seems to evade dating to a given period – it’s just his own weird surreal look.

The Dread Dormammu is just out of shot.

3) Alex Ross
Imagine reading comics for twenty years, where all the art is broadly from the same ‘pencil in the outlines, ink in some shadows, colour in the white gaps’ school. Then imagine picking up issue #1 of Marvels in 1994 and coming across a fully painted three-dimensional scene of the android Human Torch staggering across the road, his white hot body reflecting off every surface. Man, it was like going from black and white to colour, or 2-D to 3-D (except that 3-D sucks). Alex Ross makes superheroes look both cool and real. You can see Spider-Man’s costume ruching up as he climbs past a Daily Bugle window. You can actually tell all the blond heroes apart. And Iron Man looks like Timothy Dalton! His artwork was a revolution in the comic book world, a style often aped but never matched. My favourite piece of his? This enormous Crisis On Infinite Earths anniversary poster, a joint effort between Ross and legendary penciller George Perez. I had it on my bedroom wall and would stare at the tiny details for hours. You can’t beat a good shot of Superman cradling a dying Supergirl (she's actually dead but I'm still in denial).

Still time to save the world...

4) Neave Parker
Who? You may well ask. Only the bloke who painted the black and white postcards of dinosaurs I had when I was little. I don’t think they started off as postcards though; they originally accompanied articles in the Illustrated London News. Amazing what you can find out online. Have a gander at his noble Triceratops or that most British of terrible lizards, the Iguanodon. How cool are they? I really wanted to include his classic depiction of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, but the internet has let me down badly. Suffice to say that said beast is shown standing fully erect, as T-Rex used to in the 1950s. These days he’s all head-forward and tail-out, the slovenly wretch. But back in Parker’s day, the king of the dinosaurs stood loud and proud.

The Fonz of the early cretaceous.

5) Steve Thomas
I came across this chap’s artwork about a year ago, courtesy of Art You Grew Up With run by the enthusiastic Russell Singler. What I like about Steve Thomas’ work is the smooth way he’s rendered classic Star Wars subjects in the style of early 20th century commercial art. His Cruise The Galaxy poster makes the evil Empire looks like a pretty sexy crew to fly with. Cleverly done, and yet so so wrong.

Fly the Imperial skies.

6) Jan Pienkowski
Polish-born Jan Pienkowski has one of those names that is bound to stick in a young British child’s mind as they grow up. At least, if you read Meg and Mog or the splendidly silhouetted The Fairy Tales. But if the man never did anything else other than create the pop-up book The Haunted House, I think he could rest easy in the knowledge of a life well lived. It’s worth it for the ghost materialising over the sleeping figure in the four-poster bed alone.

No, we don't get many visitors...

7) Boris Vallejo
The master of muscle-bound dudes and chainmail chicks, Boris Vallejo and his wife Julie Bell are responsible for a large portion of the photorealist fantasy art genre. Hovering somewhere between Conan and Playboy, his anatomically detailed work made me want to simultaneously become a painter and a body builder. I still haven’t resolved that one. Now I could’ve chosen any number of swords and sorcery barbarianettes as an example of his work, or a particularly erotic shower scene involving a bar of soap with teeth, but instead I went with Chrome Robot on account of the cool metallic effect.

Good looking fella. Shame about the ears.

8) Russ Nicholson
I must confess that I didn’t even know Mr Nicholson’s name until I looked him up yesterday. I had his art down as belong to another Fighting Fantasy illustrator, John Blanche (who also deserves a mention here for his work on The Shamutanti Hills and other surreally inked adventures), but that’s memory for you. I chose Russ Nicholson over Blanche and other D&Dish artists like the Bok-esque Erol Otus or Jim Roslof (of Keep on the Borderlands fame), because of the sheer impact his drawings had on me when I played The Warlock of Firetop Mountain as a 12-year old. His black and white artwork is superbly atmospheric, and kept me playing the book so I could finally get to turn to the picture of the Warlock himself at the end. Though it was the spooky shots of those four zombies looming in a dungeon cell and the close-up of that decaying ghoul springing to life that really did it for me. I tried to find a nice shot of the original black and white ghoul online, but all I could find was some new-fangled colourised version for an iPhone app of the gamebook. Ptui.

His eyes flick open! You must fight! Turn to section 78.

9) Chris Achilleos
As a teenager, I was introduced to the Gor series of fantasy books by my well-meaning parents. The stories started off as John Cartery/Conany tales of barbarians, swords and giant intelligent animals, but swiftly metamorphosed into a sequence of misogynistic bondage parables loosely disguised as fantasy adventure. But that is a discussion for another time. One of the things I did enjoy about the books were the covers, especially those done by some chap called Achilleos. I particularly liked his depiction of an alien Kur from Marauders of Gor, and set about ripping it off for my Art ‘O’ Level. Later on, I discovered that Mr Achilleos was responsible for many of the fine Dr Who Target book covers I had also enjoyed as a child, though for slightly less suspect reasons than his Gor covers.

Look at Hartnell – Daleks shooting off all over him and he doesn’t give a monkey’s.

10) Tom Sutton
My last artist is one of the finest illustrators of simian shipboard action you are ever likely to see, and that is high praise indeed. Back in the 1970s, when my consumption of weekly Marvel comics consisted of whatever two wildly different titles the company had chosen to merge into one that month, I came across a gem of a story called The Future History Chronicles (as I was to find out some thirty years later). The plot, by comics mainstay Doug Moench, was to take the basic Humans vs Hairy Fellas conflict of the popular Planet of the Apes comics, but move the location to a massive ancient vessel called the Hydromeda, a sort of floating Gormenghast full of gorillas. The plot was cool in itself, but Tom Sutton’s intricate black and white artwork, looking more like something from the French Metal Hurlant magazine, realy blew me away. Too many fine examples to choose from, but I think this shot of the Hydromeda does the job.

Who's rowing? you ask. The human slaves of course.
Damn dirty apes.

Anyway, there you go. Some artists whose work I like. Comics and games and fantasy and dinosaurs. Big surprise.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

The Return of the Chocolate Ocelot’s Fringe - Friday again

It is our eighth and final day at the Fringe. Tomorrow we shall be up with the lark and heading up to Inverness, so today is our last chance to see anything we’ve missed or been tempted by a flyer to see. If you have the time, it’s a good idea to have a ‘safety net’ day at the end of your stay at the Fringe, though in all probability your festival schedule will be ruled by jam-packed laminated timetable which plots out every hour of every day of your time in Edinburgh. Yes, our timetable has been laminated by Herself, to protect it from the lashing Edinburgh rain (which reduced every Kleenex tissue in my bag a few days ago to Ready Brek).

Checking on the clothes we washed yesterday, we discover to our disappointment that our jeans have not dried out one iota overnight. Which is a bit of a blow. How can a metal towel rail, which is searing to the touch, not dry out my jeans? Capricious bathroom accessory. So I am faced with the choice of wearing exceedingly damp denim today, or pulling on my emergency back-up combats. Recalling last year’s sartorial mistake, I opt for the damp jeans, after ineffectually waving the hairdryer over them. I soon realise that walking in wet jeans is not a pleasant experience. Though on the plus side, I suspect that the extra friction built up as I walk today will make for some impromptu resistance training.

As we walk to and from venue today, I come to the conclusion that there are some things that you are never far away from at the Fringe:

A man on a unicycle. Usually to be found on the Royal Mile, stripped to the waist and surrounded by a crowd of well over a hundred people. He is perpetually between tricks, much like his cousins the juggler and the fire eater. His main role at the festival is to generate as large a crowd as possible so as to block my passage down the street.

White faced children. Members of a youth dramatic group, you will see them trudging to or from the Royal Mile, where they will spend some hours handing out flyers for their avant garde adaptation of some theatrical standard. They are kin to the grey-faced children and kabuki-faced children, who may be genetic offshoots.

Young ladies in bright red lipstick. Often accompanied by retro hairstyles, they are clearly off-duty performers. If they have a male equivalent, it is the young man with moustache.

Youths dressed as historical paupers. At any given time, there will be one large group of beggars, plague victims, gin-fiends and haggard strumpets, promoting a youth theatre production of The Black Death / Burke & Hare / Jack the Ripper. I think it’s the law.

On with today’s entertainments. For some reason we start grading everything we see today. This is often a counterproductive endeavour, as I dislike comparing markedly different shows, which inevitably means you end up discussing the flaws in something you’ve just seen. Nevertheless, a spurious ‘marks out of five’ system creeps into our viewing today.

First, we march all the way over to the Leith Walk multiplex to see the Captain America film (I can’t be arsed to give it the full clumsy title). It’s pretty damn good. The way they represent the skinny Steve Rogers for the first third of the film is very well done – it really looks like an emaciated version of buff actor Chris Evans. Needless to say, the Red Skull visual doesn’t transfer perfectly from comic page to screen (like the Fantastic Four’s Thing and other monstrous super-characters), but it’s worth seeing for the Android Human Torch cameo and the Avengers teaser after the credits. Oh, and Hayley Atwell looks good. Getting up from my cinema seat, I find that my jeans are still damp, though that may have happened when I saw Thor, Cap and Iron Man together. 4/5

Then over to the funny little room at the top of the Jury’s hotel on Jeffrey Street, where we see Dial H for Hitchcock. An enthusiastic performance from three young men in brown jackets, who put on a roughly glued-together concoction of North by Northwest, Rope and Dial M for Murder, somewhat in the style of the successful Thirty-Nine Steps west end spoof. It is in need of a little bit of music perhaps (A dash of Bernard Hermann wouldn’t go amiss) and maybe a bit of trimming on the dialogue-heavy third act, which is currently a lot of chat about invisible keys (a prop or two here would help). Oddly, both of us nod off during this show, even though it’s just 5pm. I suspect our schedule is catching up with us. 2/5

Next, we get round to seeing Robin Ince’s free show at Canon’s Gait pub on the Royal Mile. Like the Norman Lovett gig, you have to hang around the bar beforehand and nab a token (ticket) from the barman when he makes them available. It’s a bit of a scramble but I manage it. Mr Ince is funny, passionate (or maybe just angry), tirelessly energetic and deeply immersed in his subjects (the usual science vs ‘woo’ – for an explanation of woo, read Christopher Brookmyre’s Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks). Much funnier than the restrained version of him we get on the TV and Radio. Bloody good value too (it is free). 5/5

We hang around the Canon’s Gait to see Norman Lovett, who is on next. Norman’s style of delivery is a bit of an acquired taste, I think. Not encumbered by structure, punch lines or pace, 55 minutes in his company can feel somewhat longer. Bless him though, he acquitted himself well when a semi-inebriate young lady in the audience starting discussing various female musicians with him. We give him 3/5. It would have been 2/5 but we both have a great fondness for the memory of Holly’s dialogues in Red Dwarf.

Then we walk south to the ECA on Lauriston Place, a nicely spacious and quiet venue, to see Tales from Edgar Allan Poe. I am absolutely shattered by this point, but a chance to see three Poe classics acted out with puppets is too great to resist. It is also rather handily being staged just round the corner from our apartment. We are treated to The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher, and The Tell-Tale Heart. The Raven is delivered by a chap who periodically climbs up onto a trapeze, or clambers through a wardrobe. Usher is a two-hander for the most part, with the part of Roderick ably played by a stand-in and a terribly spooky voice emanating from the deceased Madeline character. Tell-Tale Heart features a dead spooky life-size puppet of an old man and a well-lit dripping cardiac organ at the end.

Our criticisms of the Poe Show would be that a) The eponymous raven puppet is hardly visible because the puppeteer has not quite stood in the spotlight, b) the performance is apparently of the ‘promenade’ variety, which simply means that they haven’t put enough seats in and half of the poor audience has to sit on the floor and periodically move to allow for scene changes, and c) it’s just too darn hot in that venue. Overcome by exhaustion and heat, I rest my head against the wall of the auditorium and nod off halfway through Roderick usher’s descent into madness and begin dreaming about the Avengers. 3/5

We emerge into the blessed cool air and return home for our last night in Edinburgh. I intend to dream about vibranium shields and mystic uru hammers, though I actually end up thinking about a flyer I was handed a couple of days ago. It was for a comedy show called Stand Up, Fall Down by Graham Whistler, who has cerebral palsy. In my dream, I imagine suggesting to him that another good name for a show would be Spastic Fantastic. You know, to reclaim the name as it were. Even in my dream, this does not go down well.

Am woken in middle of night by an American woman having a screaming fit somewhere exceedingly close to our bedroom. It is at first a bit disturbing to hear someone shouting at the top of their lungs so nearby, then becomes curiously fascinating as I lie in bed trying to work out exactly what she’s saying and what her problem is. Apart from being the sort of person that thinks this sort of behaviour at 3pm is acceptable.

Today’s SlebWatch: Killing time in the Italian café at the junction of Leith Walk and Regent Road, we spot Mr B the Gentleman Rhymer walking by. Finally the question of what he looks like when off duty is answered: apart from losing the bowler and tweeds, he is exactly the same – same ‘tache (still waxed) and same massive spectacles. Somehow we imagined he’d at least wear different glasses. So there you go. Later on, Herself bumps into a doddery old chap at the Fringe box office, who she then identifies as the venerable Donald from the How To Survive a Zombie Apocalypse show. Well we think he’s a celebrity anyway…