Wednesday, December 30, 2009

A day out

Have spent most of the last week sheltering indoors, stuffing myself full of food and booze. J. and J. put on a splendid spread for Christmas and we watched The End of Time Part One on their ENORMOUS television. Otherwise, we've been at home, the Dr slaving in the kitchen while I have wrought what must be writ.

Amongst the house-guests, the Baldrick-in-law and his Bird were here the last two nights, and today I escaped the current OpenOffice document for a day in the cold and rain.

We bussed to Lewisham and got to sit in the very front seats of the DLR to Greenwich - a quite special treat. There's not a lot to see of the Cutty Sark at the moment - it's all boxed away - but the signs said it would be back and better than ever in 2010. Which is the day after tomorrow.

We followed the river a bit, which even at full, slopping tide seemed less wet than we were. Then we slunk through the Water Gate and nosed round the Old Royal Naval College.

Greenwich Hospital from the Water Gate
There's a gap in the two wings of the Hospital so as not to spoil the view of the river from the Queen's House (where me and the Dr got married and the Doctor told Leela that the Rani had two time-brains). You can also just see in the picture above the Royal Observatory up on the hill, where I did various bits of work this year - and from whence I took a similarly drizzly grey photo looking back the other way in May.

We had a nose round the Chapel (in the left-hand wing of the College, through a door nestling behind those nice columns) and the Painted Chamber (in the right). The Dr pointed out that the bit of road running just in front of the columns is used in all sorts of costume dramas.

Having dazzled our visitors with this High Culture, we ambled to the pub. The Trafalgar was full of smart people enjoying a Private Event, so we snuck down the alley to the Yacht, for a pint or two of Doom and a Big Ben Burger.

A Big Ben Burger at the Yacht, Greenwich
Yes, that's a good hunk of a BURGER plus BACON and CHEESE and TOMATO and SALAD and an EGG. Hardly even touched the sides.

No longer a Big Ben Burger at the Yacht, Greenwich
After we'd filled our faces, we queued in the rain for a Clipper to Waterloo, gazing through the steaming windows at the grey-shrouded landmarks passing by. And then home.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A letter from Father Christmas

Hello children. Have you been good?

Father Christmas – that's me, hello! – will only bring you presents on Christmas Eve if you've been good. That's what the grown-ups tell you, isn't it?

In the days leading up to Christmas, you might hear it a lot. Grown-ups say it when they think you're being too noisy or silly, or when they want you to help with the chores. Have you noticed?

Be good and good things will come to you. Be bad and I won't visit you, or I'll just bring you single lump of coal, or even a birch twig for hitting you with. That's the story.

And it's a good story. My name's been used to make children behave for more than a thousand years.

It's a bit like other stories you'll hear a lot from grown-ups. That you have to do well at school or the rest of your life will be ruined. That there's something wrong with you if you don't cheer a particular football team or pop group or politician.

That if you're good you go to Heaven, while people who lie or cheat or make you cry will go to Hell. That life might not seem fair but gods and spirits watch over us who know best.

You can see why these stories keep getting told. It's nice to think that good things happen to good people. We'd like to think stories like that were true. And that's useful to the person telling the story, because it means we're likely to behave how they want.

Some people don't like to be reminded that I'm only a story. They think I don't matter if I'm not true. But stories are how we learn things. They shape who we are and how we behave. So they're very important.

And I love the story of Christmas. How can you argue with a story that says you should be good, that you should help other people and not be greedy or mean? Christmas is a time for catching up with family and friends. It's a time for giving gifts. The grown-ups don't go to work, and there might be parties and games. It's great!

But like any story, Christmas is sometimes used to persuade you to think or do something. Some people will tell you that Christmas is a Christian celebration – that it's the day we remember the birth of Jesus. They might even tell you that 25 December is Jesus' birthday, or that all the stuff about being good and giving good is because it's a Christian celebration.

But Christians aren't the only people who tell their children to be good. And a lot of the traditions of Christmas aren't Christian at all.

Jesus was born in a place called Bethlehem, which doesn't have reindeer or holly, and where it doesn't often snow. Those things all come from northern Europe, and pagan traditions in winter. At the darkest and coldest time of the year, the people in northern Europe would keep themselves warm with a big party and stories.

Early Christians joined with the pagans, mixing their stories up together. That helped the pagans to become Christians. Christmas was just one of the stories the Christians took over for themselves.

Some people might tell you that I – Father Christmas – am a Christian, too. That my other name, “Santa Claus”, comes from a real man, Saint Nicholas, who was a Christian bishop in Turkey.

But again that's just part of my story. The way I look now, in my fur-lined clothes, with my big belly and red cheeks and even my laugh, that's all part of north European – and pagan – traditions. Ho ho ho! I have more in common with a woodland spirit called the Green Man than with the real Bishop Nicholas. He wouldn't have driven a sleigh or climbed down people's chimneys.

Other people have used Christmas – and me – to sell fizzy drinks or stationary. Shops and charities and holiday companies all use Christmas to make us give them money. There are Christmas films and TV programmes that show us how we should behave – with families all together, eating Turkey and pulling crackers.

It's such an established story, told again and again, that it must feel strange and sad if you don't take part. I sometimes get letters from Jewish and Muslim children, wishing I would visit them, too. And sometimes, with their parents' help, I do.

How could any one be upset by that? I'm a nice, friendly, generous character who helps make children behave. I'm so familiar even adults can feel warm and cosy when they see me.

But I'm not real. I'm a story. And I'm a story for children. I can't think of anything more important or valuable to be. I'm happy being a story.

I'd worry if grown-ups still thought I was real, not a game of let's-pretend. And since I get used to shape how people behave, there's a risk that sometimes I might be used to make people do bad things, or to convince them of things they normally wouldn't believe.

Would you trust a doctor or teacher who told you they believed in Father Christmas? Would you vote for a politician who did? Would you follow one to war? If someone on trial said they believed in Father Christmas – or that I told them how to behave – would you let them go? Or would it worry you that a grown-up still behaved because a children's story? That doesn't sound very grown up at all.

What is being a grown up? I think it's knowing that a story isn't true just because we like it or want it to be. When someone tells you a story, watch they're not trying to change how you behave. And just to make things tricky, this is a story too. Right now, I'm trying to change how you think and behave. Ho ho ho!

I love the story of Christmas – and stories generally. Just remember that they're stories. You shouldn't need to be told to be good, should you?

Merry Christmas. And I hope to see you again this evening. Do leave me a mince pie.

Love from

Father Christmas

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Signs, portents, types

On Saturday, I was at the launch for Rob Shearman's "Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical", with a whole bunch of mates. The venue is also used for comedy, and I admired the cheery signs:

We wish you wouldn't be merry

On Sunday there was curry with the folks and thence my first go on a Wii, at which I played table tennis and cheated at fencing. Here is my wii-persona, which the Dr designed herself. Note the beard where I'd not shaved for a few days:

Simon Guerrier on the Wii
On Monday I did writing while ice fell from the sky. Was meant to meet chums for a Christmas drinkie but there were no trains into town. Apparently the Dr and Codename Moose were barefoot in the pub, socked socks and boots on the radiator. I sulked on a drizzly platform for over an hour while the information board just said "Delayed". Gave up and had fish and chips and mushy peas.

Glad I'm not traveling this Christmas, and really sorry for the younger brother who was meant to be in Hungary by now.

Yesterday, me and Codename Moose recorded a thing for something as-yet unannounced, and then went to the pub. Hatched plans and discussed projects before I stumbled home.

Up late today full of cold, and schlepped out across the ice to the postal depot to collect some parcels. I've received copies of both The Panda Book of Horror - in which I've got a short story - and the Blake's 7 CD I wrote, which sounds all splendid.

Am also in receipt of Fluid Web Typography - A Guide by my chum Jason Cranford Teague, which the Dr has already pinched. It looks very fine indeed, and my beloved Gill Sans gets a mention. Though there's no mention I can see of Divide By Zero - Tom Murphy's splendid free fonts, which include my favourites "Tom's New Roman" and "Douglas Adams' Hand". I've stuck this post in Trebuchet.

Digital Spy continues to post videos of me and other fine fellows discussing David Tennant's Top 10 moments as Doctor Who - I'll update that original blogpost with links to each one. I'm also among the luminaries looking back to Christmas Eve 1999 for Paul Cornell's blog.

Monday, December 21, 2009

New road

Being Human: The RoadAmazon now have a cover up for my Being Human novel, The Road. The series is back on BBC Three on 10 January 2010 at 9.30 pm. The book should be out a couple of weeks after that; Amazon are saying early February.

In the meantime, there's a world of fine video and gossip at the Being Human blog.

My book is, I think, the first time this 'ere blog has actually got me work - I got invited to pitch for the thing after my squee about a screening. On the off-chance anyone is listening, I'd also love to write for The Muppets, True Blood and James Bond. All at the same time.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Radio GaGa

I got interviewed by Phil Hawkins for his Sunday Soundtracks show on North Cotswold Community Radio, which will be broadcast from 4 p.m. this afternoon. My bit should get played around 4.30.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The 78 Steps

After the adventure of The 39 Steps, dashing South African Rhodesian hero Richard Hannay finds himself caught up in the Great War. Greenmantle, first published in 1916, begins with Hannay convalescing after service at Loos, ready to take on a new and vital secret mission.

As Hannay's boss, Sir Walter Bullivant, explains in the first chapter, the Germans have got the Turks on their side under Enver. What's more, Bullivant's own son has died delivering vital intelligence on that the Hun is up to:
Kasredin cancer v. I
Hannay must find out what the bally-flip this message might mean. He soon recruits his old chums Peter Pienaar and Sandy Arbuthnot, and a new character, the American John S. Blenkinson, to head for Constantinople. It takes half the book and a pile of adventures to get there, where they discover that the prophet Greenmantle is about to unite the Moslem world under the Kaiser – and against the Brits. Horrors!

As with Hannay's earlier adventure, it's a gripping read packed with incident, villainy, pluck and extraordinary coincidence. The threat of a united Islamic world might also suggest something more; that it's relevant today. Indeed, in July 2005, Radio 4 put off broadcasting the second episode of an adaptation after the London bombings (it was transmitted later that year).

At the time, Charles Moore in the Telegraph muttered about this decision. Quoting several chunks of the book – which he himself called “unimaginably silly” – as evidence, he thought it might teach us something useful about the Middle East and the people who live there. Because, you know, it's like a text book, with Hannay an exemplar for relations with other races. Only, um, in no way whatever.

Hannay himself is a problematic hero for modern readers. For example, there's the bit where he takes over the engine room of a boat on the Danube. The captain, Hannay says,
“liked the way I kept the men up to their work, for I hadn't been a nigger-driver for nothing.”
John Buchan, Greenmantle, p. 136.
Later, Hannay and Peter Pienaar are feeling low and their whinge about the war is quite striking – but not very heroic:
“'Europe is a cold place,' said Peter, 'not worth fighting for. There is only one white man's land, and that is South Africa.' At the time I heartily agreed with him.”
Ibid., p. 164.
It's from this authoritative, enlightened protagonist that we are told about other races and nations. The character of Blenkinsop – a brash, fat, hypochondriac windbag who speaks of himself in the third-person – was apparently a bid to encourage America to join the war. He's keen to join Hannay's mission because,
“My father fought at Chattanooga, but these eyes have seen nothing gorier than a presidential election ... I did think of some belligerent stunt a year back [to get involved in the war]. But I reflected that the good God had not given John S. Blenkinsop the kind of martial figure that would do credit to the tented field. Also I recollected that we Americans are nootrals – benevolent nootrals – and that it did not become me to be butting into the struggles of the effete monarchies of Europe ... I have never seen the lawless passions of men let loose on a battlefield. And, as a stoodent of humanity, I hankered for the experience.”
Ibid., p. 18.
It's not exactly the most flattering persona with which to woo a potential ally. I couldn't help seeing him as played by Joe Don Baker in a Hawaiian shirt.

Of most fascination is the book's attitude to the Islamic world. Hannay's mate Sandy is a devotee – he's learned the languages, lived among the different factions and dresses up in the clothes. This, obviously, wins him more points among the locals than the bullying Germans and turns out quite useful at the end.

There's lip service paid to the richness and history of the Ottoman Empire and its people, but it all depends on some clunky assumptions about how easily their affections can be bought or swayed. Sandy wears the right sort of clothes at the right moment, and the whole nation-state switches sides.

Underlying this is some insidious stuff about the personality of your average Turk. Within seconds of meeting his first Turkish officials, Hannay is up in arms.
“It was the first time they tried to bribe me, and it made me boil up like a geyser. I saw his game clearly enough. Turkey would pay for the lot to Germany: probably had already paid the bill: but she would pay double for the things not on the way-bills, and pay to this fellow and his friends. This struck me as rather steep even for Oriental methods of doing business.”
Ibid., pp. 147-8.
It's not just the blanket statements about bureaucracy and corruption that's odd. Hannay is at the time posing as a German, on a boat delivering guns to use against the British. But he's too much of a gentleman to let this cheating stand:
“We had a fine old racket in the commandant's office ... I told him it wasn't my habit to proceed with cooked documents. He couldn't but agree with me, but there was that wrathful Oriental with his face as fixed as a Buddha ... Looking back, it seems pretty ridiculous to have made all this fuss about guns which were going to be used against my own people. But I didn't see that at the time. My professional pride was up in arms, and I couldn't bear to have a hand in a crooked deal.”
Ibid., pp. 148-9.
I'm surprised his comrades didn't put him on a charge for treason. But no, Hannay's too busy playing the game fair and square to think about all the people his actions will have killed. In fact, the last sequence of the book has Hannay and his mates being shelled by the Germans – it's not impossible that they're using the guns Hannay himself delivered. The pompous dick.

Hannay's attitude to the enemy is also odd. The Kaiser – who he meets in the story – and the ordinary folk are all rather decent, but carried along by the fanaticism of a few angry madmen. (A bit like Doctor Who fandom on the internet.)

Stumm is a short, cross, stupid bully who might well have hailed from Sontar. When Hannay is shown into Stumm's rooms, there's also a heavy suggestion about his private life.
“At first sight you would have said it was a woman's drawing-room. But it wasn't. I soon saw the difference. There had never been a woman's hand in that place. It was the room of a man who had a passion for frippery, who had a perverted taste for soft delicate things. It was the complement to his bluff brutality. I began to see the queer other side to my host, the evil side which gossip had spoken of as not unknown in the German army. The room seemed a horribly unwholesome place, and I was more afraid than ever of Stumm.”
Ibid., pp. 94-95.
Perhaps this is Hannay protesting too much. Later we meet one of only two women in the book, the villainous ice queen von Einem. Hannay gets confessional, and it's so peculiar it's worth quoting in full:
“Women had never come much my way, and I knew about as much of their ways as I knew about the Chinese language. All my life I had lived with men only, and rather a rough crowd at that. When I made my pile and came home I looked to see a little society, but I had first the business of the Black Stone on my hands [in The 39 Steps], and then the war, so my education languished. I had never been in a motor-car with a lady before, and I felt like a fish on a dry sandbank. The soft cushions and the subtle scents filled me with acute uneasiness. I wasn't thinking now about Sandy's grave words, or about Blenkinsop's warning [about von Einem], or about my job and the part this woman must play in it. I was thinking only that I felt mortally shy. The darkness made it worse. I was sure that my companion was looking at me all the time and laughing at me for a clown.”
Ibid., p. 212.
Two pages later, having talked to her a bit, he is feeling bolder and I thought for a moment they might snog. But no, his response is more twisted weirdness:
“I see I have written that I knew nothing about women. But every man has in his bones a consciousness of sex. I was shy and perturbed, but horribly fascinated. This slim woman, poised exquisitely like some statue between the pillared lights, with her fair cloud of hair, her long delicate face, and her pale bright eyes, had the glamour of a wild dream. I hated her instinctively, hated her intensely, but I longed to arouse her interest. To be valued coldly by those eyes was an offence to my manhood, and I felt antagonism rising within me. I am a strong fellow, well set up, and rather above the average height, and my irritation stiffened me from heel to crown. I flung my head back and gave her cool glance for cool glance, pride for pride.”
Ibid., p. 214.
It's not just about his manhood being stiff with irritation. There's a whole load of stuff about power and dominance, and which of the races will blink first. A bit later, Sandy helpfully explains that, according to “a sportsman called Nietzsche” that,
“Women have got a perilous logic which we never have, and some of the best of them don't see the joke of life like the ordinary men. They can be far greater than men, for they can go straight to the heart of things. There never was a man so near the divine as Joan of Arc. But I think, too, they can be more entirely damnable than anything that ever was breeched, for they don't stop still now and then and laugh at themselves ... There is no Superman. The poor old donkeys that fancy themselves in the part are either crackbrained professors who couldn't rule a Sunday-school class, or bristling soldiers with pint-pot heads who imagine that the shooting of a Duc D'Enghien made a Napoleon. But there is a Superwoman, and her name's Hilda von Einem.”
Ibid., 231.
The book finishes with our heroes being bombarded by the enemy, and playing a weird game of chicken, refusing to flinch before Stumm and von Einem. The villains' resolve breaks first, and they die in the skirmish of their own making. Stumm is shot in the back; von Einem our heroes try to bury respectfully, what with not fancying her at all.

It's a strange book, full of weird, naïve and convenient assumptions about the people of the Middle East and the things that make them tick. And that would be quite fun had it not proved such a disaster as a foreign policy in the post-war period, and now.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Official "expert"

Digital Spy have posted the first video counting down David Tennant's Top 10 moments as Doctor Who, as voted for by readers.

Among the august and handsome luminaries speaking wisdom is, er, me. I note that none of the other young scamps thought to wear a suit. What has broadcasting come to?

The remaining nine top moments will follow in the next few days.

ETA: nine; eight; seven; six; five; four; three; two; one.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Block heads

The ever-talented m'colleague Mechalex has posted up pictures of his Dr Who / Lego creations.
Lego Daleks
This pleases me.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

All clear?

To the National Theatre last night with N. for a “An Evening with Private Eye”, at which Ian Hislop, Harry Enfield, John Sessions, Lewis Macleod, Katy Brand, Richard Ingrams and Craig Brown performed bits from the magazine. A fun evening, and then afterwards I got plus-oned into N.'s work party and had fine salmon and liver and bacon. Latest and liveliest I've been out in weeks.

Excitingly, the kidney infection seems to be done with – though I've a doctor's appointment this afternoon where I'm hoping to get the all clear. Still battered and tired and stuff, but a whole lot less bleurgh than I was.

Am catching up on things needing to be writ. The Novel now stands at 15,000 words which I'm mostly happy with. Have a script to write by the end of the month, and trying to do bits of the Novel around it. Also got to rewrite some of the Short Film – which includes adding in a whole new character – and perhaps add one last piece of cleverness to a thing we're recording next week. None of which means anything to you, but will be of fascination to me when I look back from the future.

Now some fun free stuff:

The first of Big Finish's festive podcasts includes a competition in which you – yes YOU – might win a copy of the exceedingly fancy Bernice Summerfield – the Inside Story, what I wrote. There are plenty of other things in the competition, too, plus trailers and foolishness from the boys. More podcasts and competitions in the next few days.

(Looking forward to Saturday, too, when the Big Finish luminaries will be at the Corner Store in Covent Garden, flogging copies of Rob Shearman's splendid “Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical” between 12 and 5. Do come along if you can.)

Paul Cornell is also running up to Christmas with festive blogs, and I was enthralled by his new Doctor Who short story, “The Last Doctor”, which is hardcore, old-skool Cornell with its mad sf ideas and woman vicar and beating heart on its sleeve. Sadly, there are no owls.

Friday, December 11, 2009


Went with the Stunt Wife to Watford yesterday to see my second Cinderella of the year. The matinee was filled with excited schoolchildren who all got caught up in the shouting, and sang along with the pop songs I was too old to recognise.

My chum Laura Doddington gave a typically understated performance as the Fairy Godmother, while fetchingly dressed as a satsuma. And she seemed to have primed the Ugly Sisters to pick me out from the audience as a possible beau. Ho hum. But what festive cheer.

Speaking of the season, here are some choice stocking fillers. My Blake's 7 CD is now available in shops, either on its own or as part of the Early Years box-set.

ETA: First review says,
"Simon Guerrier's prequel to the revamped Blake's 7 is one of the strongest releases yet from B7 Media."

Paul Simpson, "Blake's 7 The Early Years: Jenna", Total Sci-fi Online, Friday 11 December 2009

And Big Finish have announced that they only have until the end of the year to sell their Doctor Who Short Trips books. They're available for the bargain price of £5 and I am in most of them. I posted earlier this year about the Short Trips books I'm in.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Penge Christmas

Outside a church this morning, as I schlepped down to be bled at Beckenham:

Applause because of Claus
And this on my way home:

Light house

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Homo satsuma

Not only did I remove the peel from my satsuma in one single piece - as is the Correct Method - but I inadvertently sculpted the shape of a dancing man. In flared trousers. If you sort of squint.

Homo satsuma

Saturday, December 05, 2009


Another review for Vector, this the full version of one published in #260 in August.

Wiffle Lever to Full by Bob Fischer
Reviewed by Simon Guerrier

In November 2005, Bob Fischer braved a Doctor Who convention in his home town, then spent a year at events related to his other favourite TV shows and films.

Having not been wowed by Dalek, I Loved You (see Vector #257), I didn’t expect much of another memoir about watching TV. Fischer seems to model his book on those of Dave Gorman and Danny Wallace: a silly quest that lets him get drunk with new people to his girlfriend’s despair. Yet despite these misgivings, I was quickly engrossed. Fischer has a keen eye for detail, describing a panel of Doctor Who guest actors discussing their other work on Bergerac and Tenko as "like watching a touring stage revival of Pebble Mill at One." It’s exactly what a Doctor Who convention is like.

The book really hits its stride when Fischer attends his second convention – for Star Wars – and starts comparing fandoms. There’s the attendees themselves and the proportion who’ve come in costume. We learn which fandoms are most commercial, or the heaviest drinkers and which have the most pretty women. There’s the different strategies for meeting your heroes: mumbling, gabbling or slapping them on the back.

You sometimes feel he’s trying too hard with the jokes, but I loved his description of the James Bond film Moonraker: it "somehow managed to bridge the cultural gap between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Carry On at Your Convenience".

He’s good at providing background on the films and shows in question, the history of conventions and of viewing habits, too. Having watched Star Trek as a child in the late 1970s, he realises how strange it is that "a generation of seven-year-olds could be intimately familiar with a programme first broadcast almost twice their lifetimes ago." He explains the passivity of watching telly in an age of three channels before videos and remote controls.

It’s also fun seeing Fischer’s girlfriend and family get more involved with his quest. As he says early on, "It’s great to have a passion for your favourite films and programmes, but you have to accept that the rest of the world is unlikely to give a toss." Yet, later on he has to wonder, grudgingly, "whether there’s anyone left in the country who hasn’t emerged from the sci-fi fandom closet … and begin to feel as if some of my exclusive right to geeky cult-TV absorption is being unceremoniously chipped away."

Between each new fandom experience there’s an excerpt from "The Battle to Save Earth", a story Fischer wrote when he was nine. It’s a thrilling mix of his school friends, footballing heroes and bits nicked from Star Wars and Flash Gordon, hanging on the discovery of "a speicail [sic] laser called Bombpower. It can destroy anything." The book is largely an attempt to recapture this wide-eyed, care-free delight. But Fischer’s intelligence and insight are what make it so effective.

At one point Fischer quotes Camus: "A man’s worth is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover through the detours of art those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened." He might well have been justifying his Dangermouse DVDs.

Friday, December 04, 2009


I've been on antibiotics for a week in an effort to kill off a kidney infection. The infection has left me feeling bruised inside and turned my wee an interesting colour. And it's still hanging on, so I've more tests and things next week. But it does explain why I've been feeling so run down these last weeks.

Here, for your entertainment and delight, is a review I did way back in February for Vector.

"Too Many Curses" by A Lee Martinez
Reviewed by Simon Guerrier

Nessy the Kobold is the servant in an evil wizard's castle. She feeds the monsters and chats to the ghosts and avoids the advances of Decapitated Dan. When the evil wizard accidentally gets killed, the castle thinks their curses will be lifted. But their troubles have only just begun.

It's a fun, fast-moving adventure packed full of daft characters and incident. The prose is straightforward and there are plenty of jokes. The chaotic plot, as more monsters and obstacles rain down on Nessy, is all nicely tied up in the end. It's a satisfying – and quick – read. Though there's plenty of icky things going on – belching and vomiting and being eaten alive – Martinez rarely lets us in on anyone's pain. For example, a character has the tip of their tail turned to ice and we don't get any sense of how that feels, how it chills the rest of the body. Nor is there much urgency about changing the tail back.

Perhaps this is part of Nessy's character – we're often told she's a practical soul, more worried about keeping the castle tidy than the various creatures that want to kill her. By the end she's changed her priorities and learnt to take charge of herself. But rather than her character developing all the book, this change comes rather suddenly in a final confrontation with... It would spoil it to say too much more.

I assume Too Many Curses is for the same sort of audience as devours Harry Potter. Which makes the swearing a surprise. Sir Tedeus calls people “wanker” several times and there's one occasion of bastard. (Ron Weasley can say “bloody hell” in the movies, but he can't swear in the books.)

There's the same recourse to books and the slow learning of magic as Potter, the same tests and dark wizards and dark humour. There's the same plucky, oppressed underling who must dare to challenge a legendary dark wizard to a duel. There's the same lessons of compassion overcoming evil, and of the hero's reliance on their friends.

But Too Many Curses lacks the emotional depth of JK Rowling. We don't feel for Nessy or her friends. The books ends open enough for there to be further adventures for Nessy, but there's no urgency for them.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Having a go at astronomy

In amongst the research stuff and pitching, I have read some books. Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent (1907) is a chap called Verloc. He comes from an unspecified foreign country where he was up to unspecified revolutionary stuff, though we also know he did some plotting in France. Now he runs a rude bookshop in London, cover for secret meetings with other agitators and anarchists.

Verloc's an odd character, nervy yet ruthlessly cold. It's striking to post-war readers that his first name is Adolf. He's also a pretty terrible spy. But the thrill of the book is in getting into his head – and the heads of other characters – and understanding why he might do such wretched, despicable things.

The book begins with Verloc called to a foreign embassy where the new chap in charge is unimpressed by the titbits of information he's supplied over the years. Mr Vladimir wants Verloc to do something more noticeable. And a simple bombing will not suffice.

As Vladimir explains in a two-page speech, the middle classes are no longer impressed by attempts on the lives of crowned heads or presidents.
“It has entered into the general conception of the existence of all chiefs of state. It's almost conventional – especially since so many presidents have been assassinated.”

Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, p. 35.

Explosions in churches and restaurants are no good either. The papers even have “ready-made phrases” to explain them: they are social revenge or exasperation.
“The sensibilities of the class you are attacking are soon blunted ... You can't count upon their emotions either of pity or fear for very long. A bomb outrage to have any influence on public opinion now must go beyond the intention of vengeance or terrorism. It must be purely destructive. It must be that, and only that, beyond the faintest suspicion of any other object. You anarchists should make it clear that you are perfectly determined to make a clean sweep of the whole social creation. But how to get that appallingly absurd notion into the heads of the middle classes so that there should be no mistake?”


Vladimir quickly dismisses the thought of a bomb in the National Gallery since “artists – art critics and such like – [are] people of no account”. Instead, the best target is science.
“It would be really telling if one could throw a bomb into pure mathematics. But that is impossible ... I have also given some attention to the practical aspect of the question. What do you think of having a go at astronomy?”

Ibid, pp. 36-7.

Thus Verloc is dispatched to blow up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Conrad was inspired by a real attempt on the Observatory in 1894, ten years after the International Meridian Conference in Washington DC voted 22-1 in favour of defining Greenwich as 0° longitude, or the line between East and West hemispheres. The French abstained from the vote, and French maps continued to use the Paris Meridian until 1911. The bomber in 1894 was French.

But there's no sense of clashing imperialism in Conrad's book. Instead, the anarchists work independently, even against one another. There's a sense that Verloc and his wife are both trapped by their genetic inheritance. We're often given physical descriptions of people as an insight into their characters. Winnie Verloc, we learn, is pretty but “dark” and has madness in her family. Another character seems to have got his political sense from his genes.
“Descended from generations victimized by the instruments of an arbitrary power, he was racially, nationally, and individually afraid of the police. It was an inherited weakness, altogether independent of his judgement, of his reason, of his experience. He was born to it. But that sentiment, which resembled the irrational horror some people have of cats, did not stand in the want of his immense contempt for the English police.”

Ibid., p. 183.

As a result, characters act from impulse not intellect, and the book is a motley collection of stupid, brutal acts and accident. There's the man who trips over while carrying a bomb and whose remains can only be collected by shovel. There's the man who misunderstands quite what's happening and throws himself from a train.

It's a violent, dark world full of twisted psychologies. It's a gripping read, but for all it's psychological richness, and the linking of people's actions to their circumstance, there's a strange dismissal of terrorism as just something mad people do. These villains are feverish, stupid and incompetent. So they're not really a threat.

(It also reminded me quite a bit of David Simon's Homicide, which is full of stupid crooks doing terrible things. And which, oddly, I finished reading in Greenwich.)

Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep (1939) is a twisty thriller about a cool private eye in the style of Dashiell Hammett. I was thrilled by the sassy girls who keep falling out of their clothes, and by Philip Marlowe's easy cool, his straight-forward style as a detective matched in the unflashy prose. Also surprised by quite how much of the plot and characters made their way into The Big Lebowski.

I've also read my mate Rob Shearman's Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, a fine collection of weird, longing tales in the manner of his award-winning Tiny Deaths. You've still just time to listen again to Mark Gatiss reading “Love Among the Lobelias”.

And speaking of fine books, the Big Finish sale has the Doctor Who – Short Trips books at £5, and the superb Re:Collections best of at £10. I've got stories in most volumes, and also edited three-and-a-half. So this is your chance to catch up on my works. Sale must end 9 January 2010.

Monday, November 30, 2009


"Jam", the film I saw at BAFTA a couple of weeks back, is now available on the internet for you to enjoy:

It's depressingly accomplished, with a stellar cast and high production values, plus a sparkling script by mate Lizzie Hopley. Support the team behind it by buying a credit on their full-length feature.

I've spent this morning reading other chums' short film scripts and making notes on my own. Now on to the Novel.

Spent the weekend scribbling. Braved the deluge to go see "A Day in the Death of Joe Egg" performed at the Brockley Jack. It's a funny, smart but my-god-depressing tale of a young couple in the Sixties struggling to stay cheery with a severely disabled child.

The Issues and achingly self-aware cleverness is very much of its time, and I've found other plays by Peter Nichols to be crushingly worthy. But the intimate theatre and some nimble direction kept this one zipping along. The play depends on small cast really showing off their Acting, and they pulled off that tricky feat of being heart-rendering and getting big laughs.

Last time I saw it, the ending was different, so this time it wasn't quite the tough-but-uplifting tale I thought the Dr might appreciate. In fact, it ended up pressing some emotional buttons to do with stuff we've been struggling through ourselves this year. Whoops. Had to buy her cider after, during which she our pals M. and K. laughed and called me a twat.

Lunched with the stunt-wife yesterday to celebrate his birthday, thence to R's housewarming, which included a tour of vacated offices and the promise of ghosts. Fun chat with chums - and sober, as I'm on antibiotics all this week. Then home to catch up on season one of "True Blood", which I'll blog about more when I get to the end of the first series.

But just when I think I've seen all the regular cast's bosoms, they introduce a new pretty girl and swiftly take her top off. Quality drama.

Friday, November 27, 2009

My hovercraft is full of eels

Gratuitous pimpage: here's a nice place to stay in Eger, Hungary, where you could also explore the fine castle and volcanic baths.

I never did write up my own splendid trip there in May, but I did read a book about its history.

Good day writing today; one outline agreed, got to pitch for something else, and have been working on the Novel. Now off to the doctor's. (Not the Dr's or the Doctor's.) And also have a cheque to pay in. Woo.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Noises off

There's now a trailer for my Blake's 7 CD, and my casting notes are blogged on the Blake's 7 website.

Busy on some other stuff, none of which can be spoken of yet. So I'll just shut up.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Victorian rhapsody

To the British Library last night for a “Late at the library” event. There was Victorian Values – a lively show by the Ministry of Burlesque. There was the chance to dress up and have pictures taken by Madame la Luz's Photographic Parlour. A splendid brass band played versions of “YMCA” and “Bohemian Rhapsody”. And there was a high proportion of slapped-up goth girls in the audience, bursting from their clothes. Though I, er, didn't really notice.

Portrait by Madame La Luz's Photographic Parlour
There seemed to be too audiences for the event – the goths affecting the age with barely corsetted flesh and those wanting to perambulate round the Points of View exhibition (free until 7 March 2010), which tells the history of photography through some rare and extraordinary images.

We ably straddled both factions. The exhibition is glorious – and free. There's film explaining the difference between the Daguerre and Fox Talbot methods, and a wealth of nineteenth century capturings from all round the world.

The Dr was thrilled by the archaeological specimens – including that famous shot by Corporal J McCartney of Charles Newton and the ropes round the lion of Cnidus, on which she wrote a book. I loved Philip Henry Delamotte's images from the construction of the Crystal Palace in Sydenham, including my beloved monsters.

There was also the splendid Victorian hippopotamus and an astonishing nineteenth century photographic atlas of the moon, and photography changing our understanding of family, history, science and our own time. The explanatory panels delved into the politics of photographing empire and criminals, and the assumptions made by the “reality” of the image. There were gems embedded all through the thing, and I will have to go again.

It perhaps dwelt too much on the process and practice of photography, with less on the way the ordinary punter might collect, display and use the images. And, of course, the shop was shut by the time we came out, so there was no chance of checking which images exist as postcards.

Friday, November 20, 2009

You're not my type

I'm now at the end of Season 2 of Battlestar Galactica, having not been entirely won over by the mini-series. Spoilers obviously follow.

Season One continues with more of the same – people in uniform being cross in dark corridors, having to make difficult decisions and being spectacularly stupid. The more it tries to convince us it's clever, with debates on politics and morality, the more tedious it becomes. “Speculative fiction” – the posh name for sci-fi – is a synonym of ponderous. But the dogfights and explosions are very exciting, and as the show continues there's some exemplary flourishes and twists.

The opening episode is a bold idea – the Cylons attack every 33 minutes, so no one has had any sleep. But why don't they organise shifts for the staff; and why don't they work in shifts anyway?

There's a nice moment when our heroes have to shoot down one of their own ships, but perhaps the story played it safe by showing us the ship is empty. How much more horrible to see innocent passengers on board, and having to shoot it down anyway? Apollo also acts like he's never shot anyone before, but he's an experienced pilot in the fleet.

Episode two displays an extraordinary fumble of infodump, telling us something outright in the story-so-far captions that we've not been told before. There are Cylons who don't know they're Cylons.

This becomes a major part of Season One, as our regulars are increasingly stupid. Boomer finds herself planting bombs all round the ship, and there are explosions killing people. But she and her boyfriend still don't think to mention this to anyone for weeks and weeks...

It's good to see Richard Hatch in episode three, and when he's cross at the new, young Apollo I assumed some kind of in-joke. The Dr, strolling in, thought this was all a bit 24, with terrorist stuff intercutting with the office politics round the President. And she's right: it's very like 24, with heroes “forced” to do terrible things by the writers, which are quickly forgotten by the next episode. Shocking Stuff happens all the time, but it doesn't always feel like the writers are quite keeping up.

By this point it's becoming clear that any plot hole or appalling coincidence can be lain at the feet of the Gods. The opening titles tell us the Cylons have a plan – a plea to the viewer to stick with the show, that it will all make some kind of sense. But it keeps feeling random. The Cylons can follow them, then they can't. It's like the Cylons attack just to keep it from being insufferably dull and pompous.

The fifth episode sees Starbuck stranded on a rock, and reminded me a bit of Dirk Benedict's last appearance as the character in Galactica 1980 (that episode, leaving him stranded, didn't have traumatise me as a kid). There's a brilliant idea that the Cylon ships are living beings themselves.

But there's also lots of stupid stuff too. There's the guy on Cylon-occupied Caprica (which I keep thinking of as COC) who doesn't want to be spotted yet still shouts to his friend. There's how often the Adama boys put everyone else at risk.

I'm also a bit bored by the sex. It's all a bit Hollywood and beautiful, too posed and plastic to convince. Imagine it done with the same dour realism as the uniforms and corridors. Balthar being a bit sordid or quick could give us an insight into his character.

Balthar's weird. We're meant to empathise with this guy who betrayed the human race and who continues to plot and scheme against his people. When we see him smashing the computer in episode seven, it's played as if it's funny. And why, when he knows Boomer is a Cylon, does he not tell anyone else? Surely he's putting himself and everyone else at risk. And in episode nine he's actively searching for Cylons...

In fact, by the end of season one I was beginning to lose patience. Balthar's “popularity” with the masses in inexplicable – he's twitchy and strange and uneven. Boomer decides to kill herself when Balthar's already “proved” that she's not a Cylon. There's the tedious boxing match in episode twelve, a montage so oddly cut together for a moment I thought Adama was in bed with his son. And there's the wild coincidence of Helo just happening to find the same arrow that Starbuck has crossed all of space for.

Yet, as with the mini-series, there's a whole bundle of things to keep watching for. Starbuck calls Balthar “Lee” at just the wrong moment. Richard Hatch becomes a regular character. There's the cynical doctor who smokes in his theatre.

And Season Two picks up pretty quickly. There's still a lot of coincidence, and people acting oddly and out of character because it suits the plot. But the moral dilemmas really pick up, and we start to see lots of sides to the characters. Sometimes it's a bit blunt – one mentions abortion a few times but seems to think its dealing with real issues, and the presidential stuff generally is pretty naïve about politics.

I'd have liked the episode where a journalist records a documentary about life on Galactica to have all been the documentary footage, and there's a weary sigh now every time Blonde Cylon turns up alongside Balthar.

But the Pegasus episodes are very exciting, and it suddenly feels like everything's moving. The ideas and dilemmas seem smart, and there are fewer stupid or lucky solutions. The last few episodes of Season Two are really very compelling – depending on what we know about characters and their relationships with one another. The body count remains high, but once it starts killing regular characters everything matters much more.

There are a handful of beautiful flourishes in this season which seem to have influenced new Doctor Who. There's the swaggering confidence of declaring “One Year Later” in the midst of your season finale. There's Roslin's nice president making steely, hard decisions – like Harriet Jones destroying the Sycorax. And in humanity struggling not to set a violent precedent for its own future, there's all that stuff about the Dr forging his mates into guns.

There's still stuff that's odd: the President-Elect can visit his Cylon lover - and deliver her a nuclear bomb - without anyone seeming to notice. And surely the plucky regulars who don't live by the rules might have turfed him out of office before that first year was up. And Adama's moustache is... well, I hope they rethink it for Season Three.

I loved the episode from the Cylons' perspective, though again I'd have preferred it without the cutting back to the normal stuff. How brilliant for Blondie to hallucinate her own Balthar! And Dean Stockwell's performance and character are superb.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Both cutting the cake and eating it

Neal Stephenson's Anathem is a typically robust brick of a novel, 937 pages packed with action, maths and top facts. It was a Christmas present, though the weight of thing put me off starting it until my long flight out to Florida.

At first, I thought it was running along the same lines as my great favourites A Canticle for Leibowitz and Riddley Walker: the people of a post-apocalyptic Earth struggling to put the world back together, making sense and science from the fragments left of the past. For the first 200 pages that's exactly what it is, detailing young Erasmus' life in a Concent, caught up in chores and philosophical discourse, and cut off from the world and his family outside.

But there's quickly hints of something going on in that external world which will will affect the young scholars – and might even lead to a fourth great Sack of the concents. Erasmus is soon on a peregrination into the dangerous exterior, trying to make unravel what's happening.

Without giving too much away, the quest and mystery are suitably thrilling, while allowing much discussion of Big Ideas. A lot of that discussion – on mathematical proofs, on etymology, on perception – is engrossing.

Admittedly, one chapter is more than 100 pages of one great conversation over dinner. It's broken up with trips to the kitchen (where people comment on the conversation), and notes on the food, but it left this reader rather weary. Especially since it's right in the midst of some very exciting stuff involving explosions and – hooray! – unexpected ninjas.

But generally, what makes this – and Stephenson's work as a whole – so compelling is the deft mix of the action and theory. There's the dizzying wheeze that our brains, by being able to imagine other worlds and circumstances, work at the level of quantum uncertainty – that we flicker between possible Narratives and even physically rewrite the past.

(See also the Telegraph's recent list of the top 10 weirdest bits of physics.)

There's a nice idea on page 102 that becomes integral to the plot: there are no new ideas, and the order's job is not to invent new philosophies but to tend, nurture and preserve the wisdom and insight (“upsight” in the book) of the past, like gardeners.

I also thought Stephenson's invented lexicon – the glossary lasts for 19 pages – might lose its appeal pretty quickly, but it's nicely woven through the story. Usually, we learn the meaning of a word just in time for it to become pertinent, so that the invented etymology is a kind of foreshadowing, adding layers and depth to the plot.

It's a gripping adventure, and there's loads I'm still picking over – the plot, its ramifications, even just some of the top facts. It's a geeky, lively, often funny book, full of great characters and moments. And it's got the best, most satisfying end of any of Stephenson's novels.

It's just a bit too long, with a wearying intensity that means it sometimes feels like homework – or, perhaps, as if we're part of the Concent ourselves. But then Stephenson's recent Baroque Cycle – which I loved – also demands a great deal of effort from the reader. This is not an author for the faint of heart; but he's also massively rewarding.

(See also Stephenson's lecture on the geeks inheriting the Earth and my thoughts on his novel, Cobweb.)

Monday, November 16, 2009

Making history

What a splendid episode of Doctor Who. Will leave a little space for spoilers in case you have not seen it...

[Incidentally, I have written a diary of writing Blake's 7. And here is a nice photograph of me with stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Carrie Dobro. It will thrill you to know that this was taken outside the offices of Innocent Smoothies, of which I am an acolyte. Om nom nom.

Benedict Cumberbatch, me and Carrie Dobro at the recording of Blake's 7

End of spoiler space, back to Doctor Who.]

Perhaps not scary in a make-you-jump way (though I'm told by parent-friends that their kids were traumatised), but disturbing-scary because you knew they were all going to die, and because the Doctor walks away. And then...

It reminded me of the bit in School Reunion where Sarah tells the Doctor he can't save her from getting old; it's a really bothering and grown-up idea that sometimes people can't be saved. Kept me awake last night mulling it over.

I also loved the Jerking Deaths when people aren't looking. And how brilliant to make the Doctor saving everyone sinister. I also liked him calling "fixed moments in time" just a theory, so we can ignore it when we want to.

Yes, of much interest to a mercenary hack like me is the gaps it leaves for other stories. Most importantly of all, I don't think it contradicts a key work of Ice Warrior history.

Also watched Sarah Jane and Mona Lisa's Revenge, and afterwards as I chopped parsnips tried to reconcile it with City of Death, in which that portrait of Lisa Gheradini spends 400 years bricked up in a cellar and has “This is a fake” written in felt-tip under Leonardo's brushwork. Why didn't she reach critical mass in the cellar?

This sort of thing is what passes for fun in my house when the Dr is out.

Both the Doctor Who and Sarah Jane stories note that Lisa didn't have any eyebrows, as was (probably) fashionable at the time. But they don't mention some other interesting things about that portrait. Lisa sits high up on a balcony, a mad fantasy landscape behind her. As the landscape recedes into the distance, it fades to blue-green murk, an early example of aerial perspective – that is, the affect of the Earth's atmosphere.

That fantastic background contrasts with the calm posture of the sitter. And that enigmatic smile isn't gas or not being able to sit still; the effect is created by shadows at the edges of the mouth and eyes, a technique called sfumato (that is, as if seen through a veil of smoke).

So I had embarked on a complicated theory involving as-yet-untold interventions by the Doctor, Leonardo seeing an alien world through a veil of smoke and learning about the Earth's atmosphere. And then Lizbee tweeted a fine, indeed handsome, answer which is all a lot easier on the brain:
“Only the one painting was made of living ink; Leonardo had enough for the first six? Figures the psycho one would be fireproof...”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Scenes from south London

To no less august a place than Kennington yesterday for a reading of “The Ride”, a fun new play by Andrew Cartmel. Blogging now and hoovering later while thinking of notes to give him.

A bunch of other chums were in attendance. Admired Ben Aaronovitch's rewrite beard and got to meet the writer Piers Beckley who bought me a pint of Spitfire. Lively chat on all things Grub Street, and thence out into the storm.

Bus home took an hour to get down the Walworth Road due to some kind of works. I read quite a lot of The Big Sleep. Three youths tore up a newspaper and threw it at people, scoring points on direct hits. A mother and her teenage daughter had an argument in the seat behind me, their voices and heavy sighs identical which made it hard to follow.

Home to chops with the Dr, then out again to see the gestalt that is Cavan Scott and Mark Wright, who had spent all day writing and so were collapsed of brain. Even more than usual. Dozy and comfy in seats by the fire, and last ones to leave.

Chores and pitches and begs-for-work today, all as a distraction from the Great Excitement of the Evening.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Then welcome

To a star-studded showing of the star-studded "Jam" last night, the short film written by my pal Lizzie Hopley and directo-produced by the clever teens behind

It's a fun film, in which Annette Badland and Patricia Hodge are competing to make the best jam, as judged by Frank Skinner. The cast includes Linda Bellingham, Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee, Stephen Fry, Gary Rhodes and Philip Schofield. And also, on the left-hand back row, two other chums of mine.

Having dabbled a bit in short films myself this year (I was a runner on "Origin", a crucial-to-the-plot copper in "Girl Number 9" and am trying to set up my own effort at the moment), was really impressed by the look of the thing, the money on screen, the comic timing and just what can be achieved for next-to no money. Damn them.

On the strength of this short, I'm keen to see what they can do with Clovis Dardentor, the feature film they're trying to set up, based on a little-known Jules Verne novel from 1896 and also adapted by Lizzie. You can help by buying a credit.

The event at BAFTA was packed with frighteningly young and pretty people. I hunched in a corner with a couple of folk I already knew, feeling old and ugly. But there was a free beer, and mostly I was just consumed with envy.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Three different kinds of archaeology

1. The Dr is engaged in an exciting project in experimental archaeology. London's own Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology is going to make a pair of woolly socks based on the ancient originals they have on display, and using – as far as possible – the same methods.

You can follow the adventure on the Sock It! blog, and members of the public are invited to come along and help at special sessions on the last Saturday of each month.

2. Big Finish have announced a new run of Lost Stories. I've adapted an unmade 1968 Doctor Who story, “Prison in Space” by Dick Sharples, for release on CD in December 2010.

It's a fun story in itself and an interesting what-may-have-been – “Prison in Space” got as far as even casting Barrie Gosney in a role before it was cancelled. You can read a bit more about it's history at Shannon Sullivan's Lost Stories page.

ETA: You can now preorder the second series of Lost Stories - including mine - as a special discounted price.

3. The new issue of Doctor Who Magazine features a splendid review of my history of space-archaeologist Bernice Summerfield:
“The overall sense is that Benny's story – from its very beginning, and particularly when Big Finish took it over – was a labour of love: something that's also true of this book. A long time in the making, and absolutely worth the wait, this is the definitive story of one of Doctor Who's most enduring and well-loved characters. Essential.”

Matt Michael, The DWM Review, Doctor Who Magazine #415, 9 December 2009, p. 62


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

“He likes cats, but not from kindness”

For what might one day be a work thing, I asked m'colleague M to recommend Dirk Bogarde films from the early 60s. Am woefully ill-read in the man's work, so blimey: three compelling, peculiar movies.

In The Singer Not The Song (1961), Bogarde is an oddly well-spoken Mexican bandit. Anacleto preys on a small town until Irish priest John Mills walks in. Mills is determined to win Bogarde over to the side of the angels; Bogarde wants to drag Mills down to his own level.

It's a sumptuous film in full colour, filmed in southern Spain. The story is raunchily Catholic – about community and duty and salvation. There are small roles for Doctor Who later regulars Roger Delgado, Laurence Payne and Eileen Way. And it doesn't quite all come together.

Bogarde, who's grown up through the revolution to hate the church as part of the old regime, speaks in perfect English. Locha – daughter of a rich Mexican (Delgado) and his glamorous, American wife – speaks with a distinctly French lilt. And Bogarde's performance is... well, he doesn't seem all that bothered.

It was apparently the last film he shot in his seven-year contract for Rank. On the DVD extra, director Roy Ward Baker says there was an enmity on set between Bogarde and Mills. But Michael Brooke for ScreenOnline argues that it has the opposite effect on the film: charging it with homoerotic subtext. I'm not wholly convinced.

That's not, though, true of Bogarde's next film. In Victim (also 1961), Bogarde plays a top London lawyer with a pretty wife (Sylvia Syms), who finds himself open to blackmail for giving a gay young chap a lift home. This is six years before the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and the film is apparently the first mainstream effort to directly address the issue.

It takes a comparatively long time, though, for the film to name the love that dare not speak its name. Until then, its lots of people being worried and in a rush, not quite saying why. That sells us on the basic wheeze – that this is a thriller, with a villain to be spotted from the many rich characters – and means by the time we find out what it's about we're already hooked. I can see the producers worrying that audiences of the time might not flock if they knew the subject.

The film puts across a lot of points of view on the subject. In fact, there are several almost-soliloquies, where peripheral characters state their Opinion on the matter. It seems keen to encompass a range of views, but they puncture the thrill of the story, taking us out of the action.

It's beautifully played by Bogarde and Syms, with a nice turn from Alan MacNaughtan (who I recognised from Sandbaggers and To Serve Them All Our Days) and a whole world of people who would later be in Doctor Who.

The film is much written on elsewhere, mostly noting that it's a brave choice of role for Bogarde a) because he was mostly then known as a teen idol and 2) because he kept his own private life private.

But if I'm not misunderstanding, Bogarde's character is not a practising homosexual. He promises Syms that he hasn't broken his promise to her – that he only gave Boy Barrett a lift in his car a few times. An earlier, alluded-to dalliance at college doesn't seem to have been acted on either. And before we know what the film's about, we see Bogarde in a passionate snog with Syms.

Rather, Bogarde seems open to blackmail for a thought crime - “I wanted him!” he declares to Syms in a pivotal moment. The all-important photograph – which we ourselves never see – shows him sat next to Barrett. As is said in the film, the only thing to suggest anything untoward is that Barrett is crying.

If Bogarde weren't such the moral type, I could see him easily bluffing his way through – especially since the Establishment seem just as bent as he is, or don't care what he does in his own time. But it's an extraordinary film; a complex and involving thriller with a rich cast of possible villains and some neat twists along the way.

You can still hear Matthew Sweet's interview with Syms about the film on The Film Programme in July.

The Mind Benders (1963) is a bit like an English version of the Manchurian Candidate (1962) – though rather than Communist villains brainwashing a man to assassinate a Presidential candidate, here a chap's colleagues at Oxford make him perfectly beastly to his wife.

Again, there are some fun cameos to watch out for – Delgado again, a young Edward Fox, and Wendy Craig as the university bike.

The method for making Bogarde nasty is an eight-hour spell in a flotation tank. I'd half expected the plot to develop with Bogarde then exposed to extreme aromatherapy. But instead it does something just as extraordinary – and pulls back on the promise of a tragic ending to put everything right again. There's not a lot of apology from the chaps, but otherwise everyone ends up okay.

In all three films, Bogarde seems above the petty concerns of ordinary mortals; his gaze falls with equal withering on priests, bigots and women. He's gaunt, elegant, bequiffed – and eminently watchable for such striking and strange roles.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Geek heaven

So, that holiday in Florida then, in which I learned many top facts about the history of the NASA space programme. You have been warned.

First, I demonstrated my own unsuitability as a spaceman by missing my flight. I read 13.00 as 3 pm, and arrived at Gatwick at ten-to-twelve thinking I was heroically early. Saw my error the moment I looked at the departures board, and hot-footed it over to the Virgin Atlantic desk, who thought I’d still have time to make my flight. They then vanished for 15 minutes, trying to work out if I could be fast-tracked through security. Answer came there none.

The airport was extremely busy, it being half term. And the longer I waited the more obvious it was I wouldn’t be jetting off that afternoon. Got put on the same flight the next day at no extra charge, which seemed a pretty good compromise. Schlepped my luggage back home.

The flight the next day was packed, mostly with families spending half-term at Disney. They ran about and squealed. I read a couple of hundred pages of Anathem (still not finished it yet; it’s huge!) and watched Star Trek, the first ten minutes of Ice Age 3 – a world of unfunny whenever the characters spoke – and something else so dull I can't even remember. Didn’t sleep; I never do on planes, and my knees were pressed against the seat in front so I could never get comfy.

Arrived in Orlando eight hours later feeling itchy and stinky, and then spent an hour getting through customs. A nice man wanted to go through all my luggage, and was suspicious of the various Dr Who books I’d brought for the convention’s charity auction. But then he looked up the details of Hurricane Who on his computer, lit up that it was something to do with Torchwood, and let me go.

J and J were waiting to collect me, and with this delay were a little concerned that I might have got it wrong again. We drove to the hotel in Celebration, and after a shower and a change of clothes, I emerged in time for dinner at a place down the road. American food is often big and meaty, which can leave you feeling a bit like a blocked sink. But we found a splendid Japanese place where a man cooked noodles and juggled knives on the table in front of us, and I stocked up on lots of veg. A world of tired after the journey, I think I spent most of the meal just grinning.

On the Wednesday, a party of us made our way to Universal Studios, where we did the usual rides. Think the 3D simulator Simpsons was probably best. There was bar and meal in the evening, with more chums arriving ever moment.

On Thursday, K magnificently drove me out to Kennedy Space Center, while our chums gambolled off to Disney. We stopped off for provisions on the way; the only British papers available were the Sun, Express and Mail.

After an hour’s drive, we reached the edge of the vast swamp that is the Space Center, and I went into geek overdrive. There was an IMAX show and things to gawp at first, and I poddled about in a state of bliss.

The IMAX show included footage of a fake Moon landing, NASA happy to laugh at the conspiracy theory. There was also a tribute to those who’d died pioneering space travel which included the names of cosmonauts, given equal billing with the Apollo 1 astronauts and Challenger and Colombia. It wasn’t quite the Corporate NASA I’d been expecting – less flag-waving and triumphalist than a lot of coverage of this stuff.

We then clambered aboard our bus for the Then and Now tour through the beach-side missile launch sites that first put Americans into space – basically, those bits covered by The Right Stuff. We drove past the warehouses and hangers where things really happened, and where the film was really filmed.

Model of the Ares rocketMany on the tour had been in the area the previous day to see the launch of the Ares 1-x rocket – which I’d missed, dammit. There was much talk of the launch being like the good old days before the Space Shuttle (which Ares is replacing), when rockets rattled windows 20 miles away. I had to be content with spying the Shuttle Atlantis out on the pad, six miles away on the horizon. Cor.

We stopped off at the site of some of the early Mercury launches, and got to poke round inside the squat little buildings no more than 500 feet from the launch pad. Nowadays, the boffins sit three miles from a launch, but in the days of DC current, they couldn’t be further away. Even today, a rocket launch will rattle your windows 25-30 miles away, so this small, cramped bunker crammed with chain-smoking boffins would have been very noisy.

The squat little buildings have huge, heavy blast doors and 15 layers of laminate glass so thick the view outside is greenish. The wall-to-wall computers are bulky to cope with the rattling of a launch. They managed just 528 bytes, and I liked the built-in ashtrays. When there were software problems, they'd use a manual typewriter to rewrite the code and feed it in on spool tape.

Our guide was nicely open about the origins of American rocketry, showing us a rare example of a V2 engine while explaining what rockets like that had done to south London. He himself raised the dubious morality in pardoning the former Nazi Werhner von Braun; again, this wasn’t the kind of corporate history I’d quite expected. NASA seemed keen to challenge their own history, to ask the difficult questions.

In fact, it didn’t feel very on-message for what’s clearly a highly secure military base. Our map of the launch sites shows its original purpose as a missile base, and the garden – or graveyard – of old rockets was curtly unapologetic about the ballistic and nuclear capability.

The missile base on Florida's Cape Canaveral was chosen for three reasons: the generally good weather; on a “bad day” the launches would fall into the ocean not into populated areas; and it's relatively close to the equator, which means less effort to get into space because of the speed of the Earth's rotation.

Launch Pad 34As we stepped out on to the tarmac of Pad 34 the weather hit 94 degrees. The heat pressed against me as I walked round the tall concrete structure remaining, and the plaque to the Apollo 1 fire. We were warned not to step off the tarmac because of the alligators in the undergrowth. In fact, when the space shuttles come into land, it’s someone’s job to clear off the alligators sunbathing on the runway. All we saw today was a giant tortoise.

Saturn V and Command ModuleThe tour finished with a visit to a Saturn V rocket – the ones that launched the Apollo missions – and some other cool stuff. We gaped at the vastness of this great firework and took pictures, then had to get back to the car and our evening’s commitments.

First there was the Cricketer’s Arms, where there was London Pride on tap. Drank myself into a happy corner, and woke up Friday not at all well. Still, manfully, made my first panel – where adrenalin and Alka Seltzer saw off the hangover.

The convention was good fun, and I didn’t do too badly at Just A Minute – though New Fans are so new they didn’t get a reference to the Curse of Fenric which deserved a massive laugh. Our efforts were apparently recorded for a podcast, God help you.

Saturday morning, we had a talk from Russell Romanella, Director of the International Space Station and Spacecraft Processing at Kennedy Space Center, which was a further world of geek joy. When Kennedy made his famous speech about getting to the Moon within the decade on 25 May 1961, the US only had 15 minutes experience in space – Alan Shepherd having become the first American in space just three weeks before. It’s a balls out moment for Kennedy; either we divert everything into doing this thing, or we don’t bother at all.

The talk was also up to date, with discussion of the Ares launch from just that week, and what the Augustine report to President Obama might mean for NASA’s current targets.

There were more panels and signings and being talked to, and I got to see Toby Hadoke's Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf for the sixth time.

Goth ducksBetween my commitments, there were goth ducks and geckos to gawp at, and a pool to escape into. As always, talked rubbish, made new friends and molested the old ones.

After one last morning in the pool, I headed for the airport on Monday afternoon. Bloke next to me on the plane thought Moon was “rubbish”, but seemed quite taken by General Infantryman Joe. (Isn't that a dull name for a hero?)

Back to freezing cold London on Tuesday morning. There’s little more dispiriting than changing trains at East Croydon, especially when the train is cancelled and you have to wait an hour. So I fell into a taxi and home.

Slowly recovered from jetlag and the inevitable con lurgie. On Thursday went to posh singing in St Mary’s Undercroft, the chapel down below Westminster Hall in the Palace of Westminster. The Pugintastic furnishing and some of the tunes seemed a little arch-Catholic: an odd way to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ night. But the detailed programme included top facts.

On Saturday, there were more fireworks, this time in view of Alexandra Palace (from the Dr Who episode The Idiot’s Lantern, no less). We risked clambering out on to a chum’s roof to see the display, then clambered back in to drink too much and watch X-Factor.

Now steeped in work again: pitching for things, organising things, getting on with the writing. And hoping Virgin will fix my telly input in time for Doctor Who on Sunday. Will blog about Dirk Bogarde next.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Does Florida count as the "deep South"?

Just home from a lovely time showing off in Florida, and am now fighting through a deluge of emails before nap-time. Will report on my adventures with real, live spaceships another time.

Meanwhile, be sure to keep up with free thriller Girl Number 9, airing all this week at Especially since that riot policeman three minutes into episode two looks a little familiar. Oh yes, see my carrying-a-battering-ram acting.

Mad Norwegian Press have announced I've got a Doctor Who essay in their forthcoming Time, Unincorporated, due out next year.

And my short story in the aforementioned Panda Book of Horror also now has a title - "The Party in Room Four".

SF Crowsnest says nice things about my Robin Hood audiobook, "The Siege", while my former employee Phil is disappointed that the Big Finish history of Bernice Summerfield focuses, er, on Bernice Summerfield and Big Finish. Bless 'im.

Got all sorts of bits of work awaiting my attention now. But first sleep.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Panda 'nother thing

Observe Books have announced I've got a story in their forthcoming Panda Book of Horror, which will be out next month. Which is nice. Or, rather, nasty.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Leaving out Muffit

Watched the Battlestar Galactica mini-series in one sitting last night, and have the series to follow. Yes, I am several years behind. And yes, Scott thinks I'm wasting my time because of how much he hates the final episode. But anyway.

It's a rather dour re-fit of the 1970s TV show which so incurred the wrath of George Lucas. It's odd: the original was clearly a show for the whole family, with the adventures of a kid and his robot dog as key to proceedings as the brave space pilots fighting evil robots. Boxey appears briefly in this new version, but barely gets a word in.

Instead, its dark and violent and girls take their clothes off. As I found writing Doctor Who stuff myself, trying so hard to be darker and more adult can just seem adolescent. That's not to say I don't like a bit of angsty, angry sci-fi hokum. There's an effort to make it more morally complex, but I'm not sure the mini-series is nearly as clever as it thinks.

The opening scene is immediately odd. On a spaceship filled with densely info-dumping captions, a guy falls asleep waiting for Cylons not to show up. And then – blimey – one does. And it's not a Cylon like we used to know them (though there's a nice glimpse of the old-skool versions). This one's a slinky, snoggy blonde. Who snogs him and blows up the spaceship.

This is apparently a declaration of war. Which is odd, since no mention of it is made again. The twelve colonies and one ancient old battleship all react in total surprise later on when the Cylons attack. So what was that introductory explosion all about? Or did they just think the opening was a bit dull without it?

Because a lot of the opening 45 minutes is pretty dull. It's got a lot of characters and planets to set up, but mostly it does that through earnest conversations in corridors. Though there's a multi-racial cast, it doesn't seem very multi-cultural – the soldiers, the civilians, a whole dozen planets, and there's little to suggest richness and contrast. It has the same bland feel as a Next Generation planet. Nice people living rather tidy lives and being very earnest.

There seems to be one, all-encompassing religion and one, all-encompassing and democratic government. It all might have rung more true with reference to internal disputes and wars, so that where you come from is important – even (perhaps more so) when it no longer exists.

When the Cylons do attack, the series rather pulls its punches. We see explosions as reported on the news, or in the distance or even from space. In the first wave of attacks, we see very few people die – and certainly none we've been given a chance to know. The emphasis is very much on the survivors – on that shared experience of not being the ones who died. I guess that's tapping into most people's experience of 9/11, but it creates a distance from the events. I didn't feel any great loss for these worlds and people.

Things hot up when some plucky human pilots take on the Cylons in dogfights. That was the exciting bit of the old show, and the first Really Cool Bit here is when the humans realise they're completely outmatched. The Cylons can just turn off the human's computers, leaving them dead weights in space. A character with lines realises he's going to die – and we see him burning up in the explosion. It's a shocking, vivid and unsettling. And just the right kind of thing to do.

As the scale of the attack starts getting felt, and we realise how few humans have survived, the tension really mounts. The Cylons attack the remaining, weak communities, and more people we've met start to die. As the humans squabble about who's in charge and whether they should fight or run, I found myself getting more and more involved. I stayed up till 1 a.m. to watch the whole thing, which must count for something.

There's a certain amount of clunky dialogue and character. There's not a lot of jokes. There's a tedious interest in duty and the chain of command. But there's some knotty, not-easy moral stuff about sacrificing people for the greater good. And I like the general wheeze that Commander Adama, ready for war for 50 years, must learn not to fight.

Making Starbuck a girl – but still a rough-and-tumble, cigar-chomping one – is a neat move, and the hastily elected President – a minor politician until the attack, and also dying of cancer – means, I hope, there'll be less of the tiresome military swagger of so many warships-in-space TV shows. We'll see. The mini-series worked best, I think, when it played against the Top Gun stuff, and went weirder and more morally complex than just Soldiers Being Brave.

I like how they're using the old-fashioned, chunky designs and computers of the old show as a plot point. The Cylons can sabotage anything more modern and networked. Nice cameo by the old TV theme tune, too, though I'd have then brought that back as an anthem later on, if only for the closing credits.

And I like what they've done with the Cylons themselves. They're tricksy and clever and pretty and cool. The final scene is a world of Woah Cool. I hope we'll learn more about why they're so cross with humanity. And I worry that the Bodysnatcher thing, with the baddies hidden amongst the goodies, will wear off pretty quickly. Was getting bored of Baltar's invisible friend towards the end – it didn't seem to lead anywhere.

So I'm keen to see more – and will report back – but not exactly wowed out of my brain. It seemed pretty run-of-the-mill hokey sci-fi most of the time, with flashes of something much better and more involving just under the surface. Glad I've finally seen it, and can see why it appeals, but it needs to improve if I'm going stick it to the end.