All posts by David Griffiths

It’s Always Later Than You think

Logged: 22 April 2020

Whoever it was that first said “It seemed like a good idea at the time” may have had some input into the concept meetings for a 1960s TV series called “The Time Tunnel”. Watching it again far removed from my childhood has revealed how often a script could detach a piece of an actor’s soul and make it shrivel like a cellophane wrapper on a hot plate. This was never more true than in an episode that drew on events described in the Bible. Not surprisingly when the two lead characters of The Time Tunnel landed in Joshua’s camp it wasn’t just the walls of Jericho that came tumbling down.

The episode was the usual 1960s take on ancient history; everyone was dressed in blankets that looked like they’d just been bought in a shop near the film studio (which to be fair they probably had); there’s a sneering evil character wearing an acorn-shaped helmet. He’s obsessed with the idea of “loosening tongues”; there’s a local governor who behaves badly just for the sake of it because a stone god who looks a lot like the comedian Marty Feldman is allegedly on his side; there’s an obligatory dungeon guard who smirks and turns his back on his prisoner so that he can be rescued (fortunately prisoners were always chained against a wall in a way that compelled the guards to keep their backs to the cell door, allowing rescuers to creep up unobserved); and of course there’s a pantomime scheming servant who betrays everyone for gold. Into this mix came a moment of genuine crackpot grandeur. A writer deliberately and with forethought had the actor portraying Joshua (a fabulously named deck chair of an actor called “Rhodes Reason”) bellow without self-consciousness or irony:

“Let the Rams’ horns be blown!”

The Time Tunnel is what happens when ambition and business meet a punishing work schedule. In the 1960s it was common for a prime time American TV series to demand 30 episodes per season. Actors and crews could be working from 07:00 to 19:00 (or later) six days a week for eight or nine months of the year. Under those conditions television is just a meat grinder. That anything of genuine value or entertainment was made during that period is a tribute to the stamina and professionalism of the people involved – many of whom it’s worth mentioning also worked on Hollywood feature films and brought those high production values to children’s TV.

Time Tunnel was an idea whose ambition could never be realised under the conditions that existed at the time. It’s a shame because it’s an interesting idea, and many of the actors involved really gave of their best under the most degrading circumstances. It’s also worth just touching upon how the two lead characters were almost polar opposites. Robert Colbert was an actor of quiet commanding subtly and presence. What he lacked in Time Tunnel was the material to do him justice. James Darren (who had top billing) was the eye candy. His was the sort of pop idol face that looked down from posters on the bedroom walls of pre-teenaged girls. He did his best with what he had, but ultimately his fate was just to be a man who’d made tortured anxiety his soul mate . Perhaps he understood even as The Time Tunnel was in production how the scripts would never get any better. Everything he said seemed to have its roots in despair.

Time Tunnel staggered on for a single season. Although the premise was that “Two American scientists are lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages” the reality is they were lost in the racks of 20th Century Fox’s stock film vaults where clips from films involving great historical events could be re-used for little or no additional cost. It often resulted in brief outings for agitated men dressed in medieval costumes who thundered about on horseback to the accompaniment of a 72 piece orchestra. When that film ran out the action switched back to a few self-conscious actors clustered on a sound stage contrived to fit into the 4:3 aspect ratio TV screen of the day. 

The Time Tunnel was the first example I’m aware of where television trivialised history in colour on a weekly basis. It’s one of the best examples of history biting back without delay or mercy as the series itself became history after a single season. History is never on anyone’s side – it’s like the sea; treacherous and unforgiving.

Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears The Crown

Logged: 16 October 2019

Dreams are pitiless exercises in unreason. I keep a short list of my worst and compare notes with someone about them just to give me a benchmark of how lunatic they can be. For over a year my reigning crackpot dream was a freakish tableau where I was detonating small amounts of explosive charges in a cupboard in an hotel room. Someone else in the room was watching, and I became anxious when one of the charges blew a small hole through the wall into whatever lay beyond (and who knows what lies beyond in a dream?). The most relevant question I could think of at the time was “How am I going to cover that up?” Perhaps a more rational question would have been “is there a good reason you shouldn’t stop doing it before you blow a hole in the wall, or yourself?” Reason of course has no place in dreams, any more than it has in politics or mainstream media today.

More recently a legitimate challenger emerged that took the crown from my dreamland incumbent. I won’t dwell on the swirl of details leading up to the key part of my new dream. Those are just the foothills. Instead I’ll concentrate on the key part itself because, like mount Everest seen from a distance, it has a certain majesty and grandeur. All dreams are fundamentally crackers. A dream’s insanity is directly proportional to how much effort is made to understand it. The harder anyone attempts to reason it out, the madder it gets.

In touching upon my most recent dream, I have to take a deep breath and dive back into the jumbled landscape of a mishmash building that somehow I recognised, but at the same time was not strictly anywhere I knew. I found myself in a large office building filled with items of office furniture that were familiar, but inside a structure that was a vast atrium as wide as 4 large sports fields shunted together. I and some others were making our way to a meeting there. The roof must have been over 300 feet from the floor. It was like the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canveral.

Along the way as we weaved between desks and cabinets, we passed a number of meeting “guidance” LCD screens. These were blank until looked at. A second or so after being looked at, they appeared to tap into the thoughts of whoever was going to a meeting, and indicated with an arrow in which direction to proceed. I recall thinking “that’s clever, but if it ever goes wrong and starts showing what’s actually on our minds at any given time, there’s going to be trouble.” Anyone who has worked in a corporate environment will understand what a weapon of career destruction inadvertent truth can be, especially in relation to the management, or the HR department. In some companies that’s just the left and right forks of the same tongue. If thoughts like that are released unguarded into the wild, someone will be clearing their desk under the stern watchful eye of security the same day.

Our destination was a long rectangular glass topped table, surrounded by tubular chrome metal chairs. There was seating for about eight. As we took our places I saw there would be a seat vacant at the far end of the table. Abruptly a short portly figure dressed in a well made light grey pinstripe suit came huffing and puffing up hurriedly, evidently a bit late for the meeting. Instead of taking the vacant seat, unaccountably he sat cross legged on the carpet at my end of the table in silence. I recall thinking a little petulantly “I’m not going to keep leaning over to hand down stuff to you there when it’s being circulated.”

Now I’m awake and my reason has un-docked from the fog of insanity that dreams are, I can say with absolute objectivity I didn’t find it extraordinary that this late arrival sat on the floor with his eyes below table top level. I just thought it was stupid. I rationalised it didn’t matter, however. He’d be able to see up through the glass top of the table for any PowerPoint presentations. I didn’t find it extraordinary that nobody paid any attention to him. Curiously, I didn’t even find the most extraordinary feature of the dream at all extraordinary. This late arrival in a grey pin stripe suit had the head of an elephant, complete with big flappy ears, an articulated trunk, tusks, and tree-trunk sized arms and legs that ended in flat elephant stumps. The single thing I did find extraordinary, bordering on actually outrageous, was that the elephant didn’t take the vacant seat at the other end of the table.

The implication here is I was absolutely fine with an elephant arriving late to a meeting in an office, dressed in a pinstripe suit, and sitting cross-legged (with some difficulty due to the very stout legs) on the carpet at my end of the table. But when it came to an elephant arriving late to a meeting in an office, dressed in a pinstripe suit, and sitting cross-legged on the carpet at my end of the table when there was a vacant seat available, that crossed a line. Judgmentally I thought Oh…that’s a bit weird.”

I remember looking at the elephant as it sat in silence with its trunk held just above the rim of the table, and thinking “There’s a seat you can use at the other end. What do you think it’s there for? Keep up.” It’s a perfect illustration of how logic in a dream is a chain that’s only as strong as its weakest link. Mine had snapped at the first gentle tug, and was left dangling and clanking in the breeze of irrationality. It led to a coronation, with the old champion of madness leaving the throne to a new champion. The crown had been passed.

Birdman or Birdbrain?

Logged: 03 October 2019

It’s common knowledge among pilots that air traffic controllers as a species have a belief, born it has to be said of some justification, that inexperienced pilots can be more hazardous in the vicinity of airports than a flock of birds. Some would say they’re more hazardous than terrorists. When events overwhelm them they have an inclination to panic and land on the nearest flat open stretch of ground, regardless of where it is.

There’s no hard data about the number of pilots who have turned onto final approach for a car park, but the figure is probably embarrassing. Nobody knows what it is because pilots are a close-knit and suspicious group, like mutant villagers in a Hammer Film from the 1960s. They doodle self-consciously on table tops in an abstract way when asked about near-misses, and don’t talk to strangers. In their defence, and unlike Hammer film villagers, they don’t chase anyone across the moors armed with pickaxes and baying hunting dogs; not often anyway, unless it’s in pursuit of someone from the Civil Aviation Authority. If it is, anything goes.

Alert controllers are usually all that stands between a child-like voice saying “Xray Echo – turning finals” and a brisk afternoon’s business for the emergency services. Experience has trained them to intervene quickly enough to prevent a tragic conclusion to short finals for a car park or the bus lane. Unfortunately, there may have been instances where a controller’s loss of patience has been elevated by a sense of mischief. It can lead controllers to remain silent, while a tense fool attempts to land just ahead of a dawdling bus. With an air of resignation that “this is for the best” the controller just lets nature take its course. It means one fewer class three medical certificate to be re-issued later, but that’s the way it goes sometimes. It’s the harshness of Darwin applied to aviation; survival of the fittest.

In case anyone’s wondering, a class three medical certificate is something all pilots have to seek prior to going aloft. These have to be issued by Civil Aviation Authority approved doctors following a physical examination. Re-issue is mandatory because the certificate expires every two years. Cynics might say this is because two years is the maximum life expectancy of a stupid pilot, so their certificates don’t need to be valid for any longer. Aviation isn’t inherently dangerous, but it is inherently very unforgiving.

Student pilots who weather the initial storms of sensory overload when first introduced into a real cockpit, then go on to being hosed with venom by flying instructors, apparently just for the effrontery of occupying physical space in the aircraft. From there eventually they graduate to a phase known as learning. These lessons comprise the bricks of knowledge that will build the platform from which a pilot’s license is issued. Just as bricks require mortar, learning for pilots requires contempt from instructors. It’s the cement that holds all of the lessons in a fixed position. Without it, students would be all over the place, like dogs going through puddles. The underlying message is don’t make excuses, and pay attention.

Within the context of a very unforgiving environment, it makes sense for instructors to be harsh. It’s rare to get a second chance at 2000 feet when you’re on your own. You can’t pull over to the side of the sky and think something through, or wait for somebody to come and rescue you. Whatever it is you have to deal with, you have to deal with it now. Don’t expect fairness or coddling. Being savaged on a regular and routine basis is sound preparation for the harshness of circumstance in relation to random weather, or aircraft component failure. What it teaches above all else is the necessity of dealing with the situation immediately, and not wasting any time in a thumb-sucking fantasy that “it’ll probably all be alright if I just carry on”. If aviation has its foundations in anything, it’s in an absolute reverence for the truth.

The seed that grows into flying is often something planted subtly in childhood. I know mine was. For most children who go on to become pilots when they get older, it starts innocently enough. Swooping about with aircraft models, or with arms extended while making an approximation of jet or propeller engine sounds, is the first worrying symptom (though it’s a lot more worrying if someone’s doing this as an adult). Most small boys used to go through a phase where they made instinctive use of condensing breath during cold weather in a naive quest to pass as a steam engine. They grow out of it quickly enough. Even if they don’t, nature intervenes and robs a child of it’s steam as soon as winter gives way to the milder weather of spring. Aeroplanes, however, are a year-round madness. They don’t only manifest when it’s cold. Wherever there’s air, a child can make aeroplane noises. If there isn’t any air, well, you’ve got much more serious problems, so your priorities really need looking at if noises are all you’re concerned about.

First flying lessons are an odd compendium of thrills and utter humiliation. Light aircraft are exceptionally lively in the air. They twitch unexpectedly at the slightest gust, and produce corresponding twitches from novices. Pilots try vainly to stop the nose from going up or down, the wings from rolling one way or the other, and the nose from yawing to port or starboard all at the same time, plus monitoring heading, airspeed, altitude, engine rpm, temperatures and pressures, and (during the early stages of training at least) position in the circuit. This leads inevitably to a condition in novice pilots known technically as brain lock. It’s a phenomenon that occurs along with a droning sound that should not be confused with the engine. The droning is the voice of a weary instructor reminding a pilot of everything they’re not doing that they should be doing. The list is generally a longish one.

Typical student pilots emerge from their first lesson haggard and humiliated, though the hardier among them can manage a weak smile. Aviation is in their blood if at that juncture they buy a log book and resolve to do it again, and again, and again, and again, all at enormous expense to their finances and dignity. If ever anyone asks for a textbook definition of madness, direct them towards the nearest flying school.

The Missing Link

Logged: 01 October 2019

Back in the strike-riddled days of the early 1970s when the love generation had become considerably less loving in the light of experience, and fashion had slipped through a temporal rift into a parallel universe inhabited entirely by Afghan Hounds, the attitude television had towards animals was generally ambivalent. Animals on television were treated a lot like jobbing actors on television, which is to say as a commodity to be used without any thought to their feelings or dignity.

The 1960s Australian TV show “Skippy” featured a Kangaroo in the lead role. The production crew admitted later that Skippy’s dressing room was a sack. They knew the best way to keep the animal quiet between takes was to put it in total darkness. Effectively Skippy just shut down like a solar-powered mechanism when deprived of light. I haven’t seen any reports of the same approach being taken with actors, though it might be worth checking with the Australian networks to see if their archives reveal anything useful. The odd theatre company might be interested.

Today, while television’s attitude towards animals has transformed from ambivalent to reverent, it’s attitude towards most actors has remained anchored in contempt. For the sake of actors I hope there’s nothing significant in that. It can be a cruel and humiliating profession. Life might go easier if they would just shut up whenever someone put a sack over them. In fairness that doesn’t just apply to actors, though obviously they tend to be at the forefront because they have so much to say for themselves so often. Kidnap victims are a lonely exception to this rule. Put a sack over one of them and they’ll never give it a rest.

One of the most arresting examples of animals being treated almost as badly as actors occurred in 1971. It was in a series that strained the boundaries of good taste and just about everything else. The show was called “Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp.” Lancelot Link was the logical outcome of two basic needs; the need for cheap labour on television and the need to raise a laugh. Chimps stepped into this gap. Chimps have great comic timing. It’s common to hear people saying of Chimp “antics” videos “they’re so funny.” Nobody says that about cheap actors, though it’s also rare to get videos of them anywhere with more than about a dozen hits. Most of the cheap actor videos are on memory sticks that have been sent in unsolicited hope or desperation to profoundly grasping second rate agents.

Because of their innate sense of fun, monkeys in general and Chimps in particular, were pressed into service for commercials. Advertising execs loved chimps because they were inherently comic. Well executed comedy shifts products off the supermarket shelves quickly. Lancelot Link took this process to its logical conclusion by targeting the summit. Instead of replacing one or two of the actors in a TV show with animals, it replaced all of them. It’s hard to judge whether or not anyone noticed this subtle bloodless coup. I’m not sure I did. The standard of acting on British television in 1971 was at best variable. There were times when the chimps were measurably better. Overall they were a lot funnier.

Lancelot Link was as far out on the ragged-edge as it was possible to go in the early 1970s without hallucinating. Its roots (other than those set in the fertile soil of alcohol abuse) lay in Bond films of the 1960s, and a runaway successful spoof TV spy series called “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” While films and TV during the spy craze drew their casts from conventional sources, Lancelot Link sidestepped the problem of competing for talent by drawing its cast from zoos or the central casting equivalent. There’s an element of genius to this. The acting from a chimp was never going to be nuanced or predictable, but the same (or worse) could be said of a lot of the jobbing actors of the 1960s and 70s as they bellowed their lungs out while making random expressions that were completely out of synch with what they were saying.

If cheap actors could remember a line and keep their eyes open, the general consensus of harried production crews was “that’ll do.” Affordability and sticking to the schedule was what mattered to executives in those days. Talent was something a show could do without. It’s a belief still with us today on some channels. It’s even become commonplace in Public Services. The film industry was not not immune either. Italian co-production horror films of the 1970s and 80s usually had a roomy bucket dipped deep into that ample well, as each squealing turn of the winding mechanism was testimony to.

Lancelot Link ran for only 13 episodes. Its short run was predictable. There must be massive overheads inherent in getting monkeys to behave like actors instead of getting actors to behave like monkeys. Strangely it’s a rule that doesn’t apply to a lot of large bureaucracies. There the monkey/actor ratio favours monkeys heavily, though actors still have a few roles to play. Life in large bureaucracies now is a lot like being on the Planet of the Apes.

Of course it’s in the nature of all things to change. Today with the drive towards much higher standards on the television channels where such things matter, actors have stopped behaving like monkeys. It doesn’t matter. As it clattered to the ground, the monkey baton was picked up nimbly by today’s political class. They’ve shown little inclination to drop it, or even slacken their entitled grip on the prize any time soon. If a politician makes you laugh, check to see how hairy the arms are. You might be surprised at who you’re about to vote for.

The Dirty Suit Men

Blimey we’re not toffs – we’re working class mate!

Logged: 21 September 2019

One day an archaeologist will shine a tentative light into a dark abandoned film vault, examine some grainy archive documentary film, and conclude correctly there was once a strange breed of men who worked at the London Docks. They dressed in a manner that defies logic. It had nothing to do with the complete illogic of dressing in a ludicrous ceremonial way beloved of the priesthood, the judiciary, the House of Lords, and Rap artists. I call them the “Dirty Suit Men”. As the name is one I invented, it’s unlikely academics will adopt it. They’ll probably arrive at something similar with a more fancy technical name that means essentially the same thing. I’m not upset about it. The papers academics publish are aimed only at other academics. I don’t begrudge them their own specialised language.

For those who don’t know, The Dirty Suit Men were dock labourers who, perhaps surprisingly from the standpoint of our casual dress-down era today, routinely wore three-piece suits and ties while loading and unloading ships. Their only apparent concession to being labourers was a flat cap. It’s possible they had anxieties about being mistaken for the gentry or bankers if they’d looked too smart on the dockside. Because of that they did whatever they could to ensure their suits were absolutely filthy, and drew attention to it by wearing a ceremonial flat cap of hard labour. This was not an odd choice made by a deranged few, but the absolute required uniform of the day. A scene in a documentary showing a large group of these men waiting for their work assignments at the docks makes it appear that Dirty Suit Men were being bred in captivity like Salmon – though obviously without the cages, water, and posh restaurants queuing up to cook and serve them to hungry customers.

Suits in our modern era have a single phase of life, after which they are left in the wardrobe, or find their way to a charity shop. Occasionally they’re just binned from the fear of being shamed as “unfashionable.” In the 1950s a man’s suit had four times as many phases to its life. Each was a step to a lower rung of the ladder. Each occurred once a suit had dropped to a certain level of wear and deterioration. Unlike today, a suit’s actual stylistic appearance then was never a factor, as owners of the notorious “Demob” suit would doubtless confirm if any survivors from that time weren’t justifiably embarrassed at having owned one.

The descending phases of a 1950s suit’s life are worth dwelling upon briefly:

Phase I): Sunday Best.
Phase II): Everyday work clothes for one’s employment.
Phase III): A suit for gardening in.
Phase IV (and normally the terminal phase): The suit to dress a guy in on bonfire night.

There may have been other lesser known phases, but they were all aberrant offshoots that didn’t occur very often. The bookends that defined the lifespan of a suit in the 1950s were “Sunday Best”, and “Bonfire Night.” How long it took to make that agonising journey depended on how much churchgoing the suit enjoyed during its initial phase, how many “dirty loads” the wearer worked on at the docks, how much gardening he did, and ultimately how much he enjoyed fireworks.

One renegade and showy refinement to the Dirty Suit Man uniform fell to those workers who were required to stand in huge vats of grain as they shovelled it towards a suction hopper, and others who dealt with assisting the passage of coal into a hold amid lethal turning machinery. They were rewarded with a dizzy badge of rank that involved tying straps around their trousers at regular intervals all the way up the legs. The theory or principle behind this was a practical one. It certainly wasn’t an aesthetic one. The legs were just strapped-up in the hope they wouldn’t flap about quite as much.

Trousers in the dark monochrome days of the 1950s generally had legs wide enough to smuggle an entire body in and still be worn. A stiff breeze would cause them to flutter alarmingly like flags during a storm. They even allowed some men to pretend to have a waistline that started around their chests, like a clown. This, inevitably, led to ties that were six inches long – again like a clown. Thankfully this uniform was spared the big floppy shoes. The only period in which I can recall men looking more ridiculous voluntarily was the 1970s – interestingly an era with trousers that shared some of those characteristics. Short ties are now making an unfathomable comeback at some schools. They looked idiotic in the 1950s, and they still look idiotic now. That’s probably why the kids love them.

Any trousers readily accessible for snagging by lethal, callous 1950s machinery capable of dragging a man to an abrupt and horrible death, needed a few cursory precautions. In this context of course, the word “precautions” is a relative one. Health & Safety regs then tended to be looked upon as slightly wimpish, and men who depended upon them even more so. The compromise between manliness and safety was a few straps on each leg. I haven’t been able to find any stats regarding their effectiveness, reminding me again of the joke about parachutes; nobody ever comes back to complain when they don’t work.

It wasn’t uncommon for social events involving dock workers of a certain age to look like a gathering of men who had been cannibalised for spare parts. Many of them lacked fingers, or some other useful appendage that when torn away didn’t result in immediate death. My father spent more than a decade working in that sort of environment. He was gifted with a macabre sense of fun, and indulged it by holding up a hand in greeting (when introduced to people who’d never met him before) that had half a finger missing. He was one of the lucky ones.

The odd occasions when my father slipped or was knocked into the dock water from a ship, always led to him spending a few days in hospital. The dock water was so polluted at that time it was like falling into a vat at a chemical plant. People who wrinkle their delicate noses and wave their hands in the air self-righteously whenever they’re in the vicinity of someone using an e-cig might want to think about that and develop a sense of proportion. Your parents and grand parents had it much worse.


Logged 16 September 2019

A witty American said once that he could never tell if actors talked like Englishmen, or if Englishmen talked like actors. That’s an adventurous thing for an American to say when he’s been bought up with a language that has its roots in Elizabethan English and all of the elastic rules that implies. I think he had a point, though, at least in relation to films from the 40s, 50s, and 60s. It was a land where actors could sound very strange indeed. By coincidence they were also condemned to say the most ridiculous things in equally ridiculous voices. For example an early British talkie had a scene where a man had been discovered rifling through someone else’s cabin on a ship. Instead of being arrested he was instructed rudely to “Make an account of yourself!” The spasm of over-acting that vented those words onto the sound stage was like listening to someone sitting on a “whoopie” cushion.

Actors have a harder time with language than just about anyone else because so many of the words they have to use in their professional capacity are someone else’s. There are times when I struggle to make myself clear even with my hand leading the script. If I were compelled to use a script by the hand of another there’s no telling what I’d say. Actors for the most part don’t get much choice – especially (I’m told) on all of the many permutations of Star Trek: Next Gen, where creative deviations from the script are frowned upon with considerable ire.

Old films, with all of their quirks of language, are actually portals into a lost age. The age they’re closest to is ancient Egypt because of a still and dusty sense of preservation about them. One aspect of this is especially noticeable in 60s and 70s television plays. The world passed at a much slower rate of spin then, and the pacing of drama was matched accordingly. It wasn’t unusual for a television play to be a lot like watching paint drying, albeit quite intelligent paint. In defence of these plays I should add that what they lacked in action they more than made up in Pinteresque dialogue. 

Harold Pinter, for anyone who isn’t old enough to remember him (which obviously includes almost everyone below pension age today), was a famous playwright with a reputation for squeezing the subtlest nuances out of a script. Like most successful writers, his style was copied reflexively without any sense of shame, and sometimes without any sense of knowing when to stop. The dialogue that grew from those plays was tagged as “Pinteresque”, often unjustly in that it just combined the repetitive aspects of subtlety and nuance but lacked the innate talent of the master.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s it was commonplace for earnest writers to fill TV scripts with agonisingly long scenes where actors stared open-mouthed at each other to the accompaniment of a dubbed-in ticking clock (probably to give the audience a metronome sound to hold on to, or think they’d slipped into a coma). There was usually a moment in the script where one actor would “surprise” another by appearing “unexpectedly”. After the requisite minute or so of silence while they goggled at each other and/or examined ornaments within arm’s reach, one of them would make a verb-based statement:

“I’m going out for an hour.” 

The shock of breaking the silence was like a voice from a table top seance:

“Going out?”

“Yes……..going out…….for an hour.”

“An hour?”

“Yes…..just for an hour.”

“Ah….just for an hour then.”

“Yes….going out….for a walk…….for an hour.”

“You won’t be going far.”


“If you’re only going out for an hour………you won’t be long…..on your walk….your walk for an hour. You can’t walk far and back in an hour.”

“No…..I’ll only be out walking for an hour.”

Just an hour?”

“Yes….just an hour.”

“Well then you can’t walk far and back…….if it’s only an hour.”

“No, it won’t be far. I’ll only be an hour. I have to get back in an hour.”

More silence.

“See you later then.”

Some of those plays were 90 minutes long, though obviously it seemed like 90 days. It’s a lost embalmer’s art.

While playwrights and scriptwriters were indulging themselves by trying to be Harold Pinter, actors (well…..some actors) were indulging themselves in quite another way. A film called “Georgie Girl” is a perfect example. In it, James Mason confined his statesman-like indulgence to a brusque “no-nonsense” northern accent. Lynne Redgrave was content with re-inventing herself as Joyce Grenfell’s younger sister (there just isn’t space for me to explain who Joyce Grenfell was – sorry). Alan Bates, however, was where the fun veered off the tracks. He personified what would happen if a four-year-old had been allowed an adult’s power and free access to stimulants. In fairness, that aspect of his performances were the same regardless of what he appeared in. For good or ill it nudged the red line for me in Georgie Girl.

Alan Bates passed through Georgie Girl like a blast of air from a window that had just crashed open in a storm. Whenever he had some dialogue his voice, eyebrows, and nose all elevated at the same moment in a twitchy preliminary filled with the sort of tension that precedes a steam pipe about to blow. After a moment of insane hyena-like grinning he strikes an abrupt pose and says, in a very cheerful, fake-posh voice, something like “I say………have you met my father-in-law? He’s awfully grand.” Alan Bates is what would happen if William Shatner’s DNA were exposed to the same radiation that created The Hulk. 

It’s alright – you did your best

Kodak Brownie 44a
Logged 6 September 2019

I built my first camera when I was six. It was made out of clay. It had a working viewfinder born of a mad, though essentially meaningless sense of attention to detail. I’d punched a hole through the “camera” in the viewfinder position from the back. The hole was big enough to see through. It’s worth stopping to think about what sort of logic was at work. Why was it an absolute necessity for a camera made out of solid clay to have a viewfinder? In essence this was my first experience of a simulator. It was also my first experience of being ahead of my time by using a simulator to accustom me to handling something real later without risking any of its hazards. I have to be honest and admit that fact slipped by me unnoticed at the time. I was foolishly (or delusionally) proud of it upon reflection decades later.

Obviously being solid, my first camera lacked many of the other prerequisites of photographic gear, not least of which was a shutter mechanism. It follows there was obviously no dark chamber to accommodate film either as there was actually no space to accommodate anything. That ruled out any possibility of the camera being functional other than as a trophy, or something with which to smash a window in an act of impulsive vandalism.

Astute readers will have guessed by now this entire exercise was an attempt by an experienced teacher to keep very young children in a classroom quiet for a while by giving them something recreational and creative to do. It met with complete success at my desk. I worked in absolute silence with my chin hooked down on my chest in concentration. I’m inclined to believe it would have seemed worryingly obsessive to normal adults. Fortunately the only adult present was a teacher. While I’m not in a position to say categorically that teachers aren’t normal, it has to be said my behaviour didn’t appear to trouble ours. Draw your own conclusions. Perhaps she was practically-minded and astute enough to know how to create order from chaos by that stage of her career, and not complicate it with over-analysis.

In the same lesson, and with more ambition than sense, I also made a clay submarine. It was my first experience of diversifying (and to be fair my first marine engineering project). The submarine was a more hurried project than the camera had been. Unfortunately it showed. It lacked the basic blueprint of me having one at home to use for guidance during the construction phase. What that project revealed to me subsequently, although I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, was the value of having multiple irons in the fire because of the extent to which life is filled with disappointment and failure.

If I’d had the experience and comprehension to think it through, the relative speed with which I built the sub in comparison to the length of time I took over the camera would have been a warning. I’ve a vague recollection of my teacher spotting me adding the sub’s conning tower as a separate prefabricated unit, rather than extruding it from the main body. Then as now, I was contemptuous of advice, come what may. My recollection of her voice, if I have one, is of a distant muffled drone from afar to which I nodded absent acknowledgement while paying absolutely no attention. What did she know about building submarines? I knew what I was doing. I’d drawn upon the same manufacturing technique with complete success using plasticine on many previous occasions. Here was a material that looked and felt the same. What could go wrong? Exactly what could go wrong became clear a day or two later when the camera and the sub were fired to finish them off. It has to be said the sub did not emerge anywhere near as well as the camera.

The camera was a triumph, even down to the pedantic if unevenly carved letters “K..O..D..A..K “ – a critical detail I’d picked up from a Kodak Brownie 44a roll film camera at home. Because of my unsteady hand with the pointed end of a spatula, this engraved brand name on my clay camera looked a lot like the name of a murderer written in desperation by a dying victim. I didn’t care. My teacher applauded the functionally useless viewfinder borehole, and my head swelled with a sense of accomplishment. It was a short-lived swelling, however. The submarine project was a barb that popped my ego.

My marine engineering project was delivered to me in two sorry pieces that illustrated how far assumptions or inattentiveness can lead us into disaster. The conning tower had dropped off during firing because I’d attached it after building the vessel itself. It was a fundamental manufacturing flaw my teacher had warned about. In my ignorance I assumed clay was the same as plasticine because it looked and felt the same. This was a harsh lesson learned; don’t take anything for granted (especially in engineering). In that sense it was hands-on education at its best.

If nothing else, this was definitive evidence that I was right to follow my instincts later and became a photographer rather than a marine engineer. We live in a very litigation-minded society today. People are abruptly intolerant of mistakes, especially when they’re at sea and a torrent of water is cascading in through a hole, rather than draining out as it does from a bath. Nobody’s going to be tolerant of human error while they’re struggling to put on a life jacket and find their way up a slippery ladder to escape. “It’s alright – you did your best” is what kind parents say when a child has left splayed fingerprints everywhere after cleaning the family car windows. It isn’t something anyone says when Air-Sea Rescue have just received another scramble call because some idiot has realised too late that not everything floats, and clay isn’t the same as plasticine.

Bad Dinner Guests

Logged 4 September 2019

Zombies throughout film history have been burdened with a variety of appealing or appalling personal habits. Opinions on them, pro or con, vary according to whether you’ve led them or been eaten by them. Opinions on cannibals have a tendency to be very similar.

Film-makers can never agree exactly on what typical zombie behaviour is, and that’s clouded the subject for the rest of us. The most consistent behaviour I’ve identified (with zombies, not film-makers) is that of being impatient diners. Their impatience is pathological and impulsive – characteristics they share with smokers who are equally impulsive, though obviously not – I hope – for the same reasons. In defence of smokers, I’ve yet to see them gnawing on anyone in the leper-sheds they’ve been banished to outside of some office buildings. At worst their gnawing targets fingernails.

In today’s judgmental, born-again prohibitionist world, smokers are treated disgracefully – much worse than the reanimated dead. It’s impossible to justify. If you have a zombie round for dinner it’s always going to end in a mad clatter of plates and cutlery, shrieking, and overturned furniture (and perhaps a visit from the Police). I hold smokers in higher regard because none of them have ever tried taking a bite out of me at dinner. Contrast this with the behaviour of zombies who, routinely, tuck into anyone who strays within grabbing distance. Trust me, it’s not smokers who need legislating.

Government, as ever when dealing with controversy, is silent about the persistent lawlessness and general lack of hygiene of zombies. Grudgingly, it looks askance at some of their more extreme behaviour, but that’s all it does. Government is like Dennis Hopper in “Apocalypse Now” when he saw Martin Sheen gaping at a mass of decapitated heads jammed onto spikes:

Awww…man….you’re looking at the heads. Sometimes he goes too far.”

At this juncture I should declare that I haven’t smoked since I was aged ten. When I did it was an experiment that a friend and I executed in conspiratorial silence (twice) like members of the resistance, though without a clue of how to do it properly. We grasped enough of the basics to light the right end of a cigarette and dock the other end with our eager mouths. The rest was guesswork based on casual observation that drew on unimpeachable sources such as episodes of “The Saint” and “Man in a Suitcase”, or just about any 1960s TV show, including (bizarrely) Thunderbirds and Stingray. In the 1960s, even the puppets on TV smoked (they made commercials too, but for lollies rather than cigarettes).

My friend and I didn’t persist with the smoking experiments. The only tangible success we had throughout was drawing on the cigarettes until we had hamster cheeks. We held the smoke in our mouths for a few seconds, presumably looking like Popeye, then blew it all out as if it had been an accomplishment. “So that was smoking” we thought. Fantastic! We finished one cigarette apiece in this idiot manner, then put the pack away feeling like we’d made an advance, though without really understanding why. I still don’t understand why.

Some element of this must have troubled us dimly. A day or so later we repeated the experiment using the same methodology. Predictably and depressingly it brought us to the same inconclusive results. As a vehicle for establishing our radical credentials it was completely useless. It followed that we didn’t attempt the experiment a third time, or at least I didn’t. I lost touch with my co-conspirator when life’s events parted our ways a couple of years later. I don’t know if he was ever tempted again. I suspect not. Smoking was just a phase we went though in the same way that some young people become communists while at University.

It’s likely I’m better disposed towards smokers than zombies because I’ve actually tried smoking, albeit in an imprecise way, while I’ve never tried eating anyone. Call me a traditionalist, but I prefer it when my food stays still on the plate rather than fighting back or trying to escape. I’ve also found smokers to be good company for the most part. I’m not convinced the same can be said for zombies for any part. Even when they’re quiet there’s a sense they bring with them of being trapped in a car with a wasp walking about on the back window. You can’t help but keep looking over your shoulder at where it is and what it’s doing.

For me the worst aspect of zombies is their complete absence of versatility. Smokers throughout history have been able to do virtually anything but stop smoking without becoming irritable. All zombies can do (if the film and TV people are right) is sway about making ridiculous noises and lunge abruptly at anything that moves. Although that’s never prevented someone from having a successful career, especially in mainstream media, nobody’s going to be discovering the next great advance on penicillin that way. Zombies are also a novelist’s nightmare. There are pockets of readers who still take some pleasure in descriptions of shafts of light projecting obliquely into a smoke-filled room. Nobody’s going to linger over a tender scene where the major component the author has to work with is carnage, other than Hannibal Lecter.

Ultimately the choice between zombies and smokers is a simple one that can be given form with an equally simple checklist. What do you want someone to bring to the table (sometimes literally)? If the answer is good conversation, wit, and agreeable company, smokers tick all of the boxes. If the answer is horror, a rank smell, and bad table manners, then zombies are what you want, and my blessings (for whatever they’re worth) go with you. They just go with you from afar.

You Are Go For Orbit


Up from The Cape: 16 March 2019

If rehearsing is an effective way of preparing for an actual event, what does it mean when someone has recurring dreams – especially about falling? That’s really a confusing question because most people don’t often rehearse falling – at least not consciously (unless they’re joining a circus as a clown). There aren’t many people who can rub their hands together and decide just before bed “Right! Tonight I’m going to dream about falling so I can experience fear and panic, and also become good at it.” By the way, if fear and panic rings your bell, I’ve got just the thing for you. My shaving mirror may not be inherently dangerous, but what I see in it every day increasingly frightens me.

In the early 1970s some of the astronauts on Skylab (the first American low Earth orbit space station) found they awoke in a panic occasionally due to the ever-present sensation of falling. If you’re in space, unless you’re experiencing acceleration or deceleration, it feels literally like you’re falling – all of the time. That’s because you are. The conscious mind can adjust to this, but it takes the unconscious mind longer to adapt. In orbit you’re falling with forward momentum of 17,500 mph without air resistance. Because of that momentum you travel so far so fast that the surface of the Earth always curves down away from you as you continue to fall forward. That for practical purposes, is an orbit.

The sense of physical threat associated with falling and falling and falling triggers an occasional panic reaction in some people when they’re asleep. It’s something I’ve also been through, but in my case only on trains when they jolt unexpectedly – most often if I’ve slept on past my stop. When that happens my confused and abrupt awakening has a cattle-prod aspect to it, and probably models the Skylab experience in its essential details, though obviously without me being in low Earth orbit. That’s too far outside of the travelcard zones I’ve got a ticket for.

I also used to encounter the cattle-prod effect in the days when I worked in a corporate environment. It happened most commonly if I had to attend post-lunch meetings. Recollection of these post-lunch meetings was of distant droning voices interrupted by my irregular blackouts. It was an experience punctuated by helpful digs in the ribs from the person sitting next to me as my head listed over in slack-jawed slow motion, or I sagged forwards gradually like someone who’d just been shot by a sniper with a silencer. I’d have been useless on a committee in those days, unless it was for the obvious utility of the gavel-like thud of my forehead hitting the table periodically.

It’s easy to understand why a constant sensation of falling while in orbit triggers a panic “wake-up” call. That’s evolutionary self-preservation at work, probably drawn from our origins as tree-dwelling fruit eaters. Coincidentally I knew a couple of boys like that at school, though one of them preferred a window-ledge to trees. It’s harder to explain why it happens in bed on Earth, because it does to some people. Technically, the Earth is also falling, so in that respect, subconsciously, it may feel like being in a very big lift that’s just had it’s cables cut. If that is the reason, or it’s that our galaxy is falling off into space as well, with its cables cut, there’s not going to be an easy solution. Tablets probably won’t help either. There’s something much more fundamental at work here than car-sickness. Everything’s always moving. Being stationery is an illusion. Just because that’s hard to believe doesn’t mean it won’t seem real when you’re trying to sleep. Sometimes the numbers on my electricity bill look like total fantasy, but that doesn’t put off the energy company; it still demands the money promptly as if the bill were real.

When the sensation of falling is purely a metaphoric one instead of a real one, it’s a new sort of problem to grapple with. Again there’s an incident this touches on that reminds me of my dreary corporate days. Looking back I can see now that my attention span was inadequate to make a go of the corporate world. Predictably, it came to a head when I sent out an email to a group of ten people in which I’d made reference to how having to work on some dull minutes of a lengthy meeting had chloroformed my brain. A moment’s inattentiveness, as they say, can lead to a lifetime of regret. Laziness, disinterest, or sentient fingers with a sense of mischief led me to substitute the word “brian” for “brain”.

For days afterwards colleagues revelled in my evident embarrassment – asking me repeatedly if my brian had woken up yet after being chloroformed. Usually I knew when to expect this. Whenever I saw a cluster of grinning colleagues huddled together at the other end of a corridor, and glancing my way, I braced for the inevitable. My colleagues always looked like cheerful hyenas who’d just stumbled on some road-kill. They were filled with evident glee in anticipation of a feast at my expense. I often smiled back, but it was a hollow mechanical smile, bare of genuine warmth. It was only window dressing for my growing sense of malevolence towards them, and dark thoughts of revenge. I could never hear the silly chatter of their voices; all I heard was the distant thumping of war drums.

During this episode, mine was the sort of expression you don’t want to see on anyone’s face – especially if they’re armed, which fortunately I was not. If you see a face like that, you should leave immediately. For anyone still waiting for the lift to arrive as they jab at the button like a woodpecker, looking back over their shoulder as the lengthening shadow of their predator draws closer, they’ll probably be thinking about the stairs. By then of course it’s too late. This is a story that never ends well unless the lift arrives in time to avert a tragedy.

Attack of the Intelligent Mud


Up from The Cape: 4 March 2019

Anyone who can’t remember a time before Facebook existed will probably benefit from skipping this piece. It’s filled with references to a period of human history called the 1950s and 60s. For the social media generation that will be about as relevant and meaningful as The Roman Empire.

I’m usually disdainful of hoarders, but I wonder if I really should be more tolerant. I’ve been going through my DVD recordings and discovered an early pre-Dracula Hammer film I’d hoarded called “X – The Unknown.” It’s  a pretty commonplace monochrome 1950s story about living intelligent mud that erupts from a fissure in a quarry. Being an apex predator it consumes anyone it discovers not paying attention while it forages to satisfy its own bloated self-serving appetite – somewhat reminiscent of the way mainstream media conducts itself these days. It feeds on radioactive material, and any cheap screaming actors who get in the way.

This is not what I’d describe as a trip down memory lane for me. It’s a story off on one of those barren tracks that end at a rusting abandoned car and tangled undergrowth. What follows are some of the more memorable sights along the way. It’s not in any sense a review, though I do offer a blizzard of personal opinions throughout, for whatever they’re worth. Think of it as “a day out in the 1950s” with a few pictures for illustration.

Below a very young Marty Hopkirk (Kenneth Cope from “Randall & Hopkirk [Deceased]”) is saying “Please Sir – I haven’t had a turn yet”. He means a turn on the Geiger counter rather than having a fit. Note also that as this was a Hammer film, there’s the inevitable presence of Michael Ripper, still at this stage evolving into the ” Coachman” or “Innkeeper” roles he nailed down later. He’s looking doubtful about the whole thing. You can imagine him thinking to himself “I’m in the wrong bleedin’ century I am – where’s me coach an’ ‘orses?”

Mr Grimsdale from Norman Wisdom films turned up as (of all things) the head of an Atomic Research Establishment – on this occasion without Norman Wisdom to look after the atomic pile. Perhaps on balance that was for the best.

An improbably youthful Frazer Hines found time from his school day to appear for a short while. He only seemed capable of repeating “ah cannie….ah cannie” when asked what he and his friend had been up to the previous night (how many public figures have been asked that to their shame?). This is the face he had on him when an adult said “But that was when Willie was fit and healthy wasn’t it?” His answer in 1950s British film industry Scots was “We went ooooot to the toooowerrrr in the marrrrshes.” Pray that isn’t a euphemism.

Below, Mr Grimsdale tried to entertain the actor Leo McKern by standing in front of him like an enormous surreal chess-piece that thinks it’s just won the game. McKern for his part was probably dreaming of better material (and actors) to work with. The distant look on his face is a bit of a clue.

After a sterile closed-mouth kiss, this Lothario (below) said what anyone with a nurse in his arms and a stirring somewhere else would say: “Darling…..why didn’t we start doing this earlier?” Did men really say “darling” when they were squeezing a nurse in the 1950s? I can’t remember. I was too young.

Mr Lothario came to a nasty end after the appearance of Private Fraser’s “slithery thing” from “Dad’s Army.”

The nurse didn’t look too happy either. Because it’s a tight camera shot she has to scream with her hands clawing up against her face (I bet women can confirm there have been wedding nights like this). The image I’m referencing is at the top of this piece.

Anthony Newley put in a passing appearance as a gore-blimey guv’nor squaddie with an edgy central casting Scots squaddie friend. Predictably his Scots friend was called “Haggis” (or ‘Aggis” as Newly truncated it affectionately). The image below reveals the moment when Newley fell prey to “shouting the same word repeatedly” disease. He kept bellowing “‘Aggis………..’Aggis………..’Aggis” into the darkness of a muddy field. I suppose that’s what bored soldiers had to do for entertainment before games on smartphones.

The film also had a stern public address system announcer at the Atomic Research Establishment, though she was only in spirit form (i.e. audio only). She sounded like the Queen would have if she’d been made to go out to work in the 1950s, and didn’t care if her subjects knew what she thought about it; rather cross.

The token American actor employed to improve the film’s chances of US distribution was Dean Jagger. He suffered from the common problem men on the phone had in 1950s films. He kept going deaf for the first part of a phone call, which compelled him to say “Where?” after being given a location. In this case saying “where?” coincided with him looking up when he’d been told that four people had just “been melted in a car”. Evidently he expected to find their remains on the ceiling. Not seeing them there he fumbled about and asked someone for a pencil, so he could write down the location of where the four people had been melted by the slithery thing. Surprisingly, to make a note of the location he seemed to do nothing but draw a single cross on the paper, like an illiterate yokel practising his signature. Then he asked Mr Grimsdale if he had a map. I couldn’t understand why. All he had for a location was the mark he’d made on an otherwise blank piece of paper. A map wasn’t going to help there.

Below – Police spot the slithery thing:

Eventually the principal cast subdued the slithery thing by using a standard portable radar-dish gizmo to which most 1950s monsters were susceptible. Unexpectedly, it was followed by an explosion that appeared to take the actors by surprise. They all stared towards smoke hanging over the set. Mr Grimsdale broke the silence and said “What was that?” – sounding genuinely puzzled. Dean Jagger looked equally confused and said in what sounded like an unscripted moment “I don’t know……but it shouldn’t have happened.” Leo McKern was speechless for a moment in a “thank God it’s almost over” sort of way. As the credits rolled, so was I.

Over sixty years ago, this would have been an evening out for some people, and a very quiet bus ride home afterwards. That journey home would have been spent in contemplation of whether it was time to think seriously now about committing to a newfangled thing called a television set. Ironically of course, that’s exactly where I saw X – The Unknown, decades after it may have driven some from the cinema into television’s treacherous embrace.