Friday, 30 October 2015

In their elements

“One wore a grey suit, the other wore a blue dress, and that’s as much as we knew about them.” David McCallum

It’s also said that David McCallum and Joanna Lumley had the same hair in Sapphire and Steel, just at (slightly) different lengths. That’s a very cheap shot, it’s too easy to poke fun at the fashions of a programme which premiered over 35 years ago.

It’s also a programme which has never seen a repeat on terrestrial television and steadfastly refused to explain itself even when it was on air. It remains as enigmatic as its lead characters, and although every episode is available on DVD there is very little in the way of background (or foreground) analysis beyond other people’s recollections.

I’m not going to parrot them, I’m going to bore you with my own.

The programme was made sporadically between 1979 and 1982 (apparently because of the limited availability of its high profile lead actors) and my recollection is that it’s NZ screening followed my friends and I through our college years. We loved it, of course-it was right up our street, mysterious, scary, thought-provoking. Although for some people it just seemed to be provoking. I distinctly remember my Dad giving up part way through an episode with a frustrated “What’s it about!?” I read recently that even Joanna Lumley had a spectacular sweary fit over the industrial-grade crypticness of the lines she was given to say.

I think its sheer opacity appealed to us. We quickly cottoned-on that there weren’t going to be any easy answers (or answers at all) and certainly no expensive effects (even in 1979 that magnificent title sequence was considered ‘ropey’). With Sapphire and Steel you had to set off into the night with your mind wide open; go dark or go home. The grade was rated ‘uneasy’.

But we weren’t alone, we had an Invisible Man and a new Avenger with us. They weren’t the warmest of guides, in fact Steel was generally abrasive and rude to everyone, but we all fancied the timeless Joanna Lumley and Sapphire was undoubtedly better with people. Although you always got the impression that our heroes considered having to deal with the humans cluttering the places they were sent to was the most difficult and irksome part of their ‘assignments’.

So that brings us to the nature of our two leads. Everything we’re ever told about them is in that title sequence, which is voiced with such stern authority and accompanied by such an imposing horn section that we miss the fact that it’s only compelling gibberish. Who is ‘assigning them’? Where do they come from? How do they arrive where they need to be? What’s with that blurry ‘head wear’ in the background of the opening titles? Why are half the ‘medium atomic weights’ listed not actually elements? How did this programme even get made?*

I think I must have a very literal (or unimaginative) mind because just as I never questioned that Pi really did spend all that time in a raft with a tiger, I never doubted that cold, hard McCallum was Steel and beautiful, cool Lumley was Sapphire. That is to say they weren’t code-names or designations, our stars were literally playing the physical embodiment of those substances, anthropomorphised and brought to life. It might be childishly simplistic, but makes as much sense as any other explanation (and the characters do state that they’re not human).

So, that’s our protagonists. We’re told that their enemy is Time. Rather than treating it as a medium to travel through as every other programme on TV did, here time was a force, and apparently a malevolent one which needed to be contained. Time could break through into the present if there was an anachronism present, a trigger as steel called it. Ancient Nursery Rhymes, old photographs… my parents bright orange ’70’s formica kitchen bench would have had Sapphire and steel working overtime. The creatures which roamed the corridor of time looking for ways to break through were embodied in different (and usually inexpensive) ways: a faceless man, ghostly roundhead soldiers, Joanna Lumley opening her eyes to reveal a living darkness, pitch-black contact lenses providing one of the programme’s nastiest shocks…

Dealing with these threats was equally ephemeral – no car chases, explosions or fist fights here — the effective stagey-ness of the programme was complimented by the cerebral ways Sapphire and Steel would eventually resolve the crisis and restore the status quo. I’ve always responded well to that in the figures I make my heroes, although here their victories always seemed only partial or temporary — fitting I suppose when your enemy is Time.

When the end came it was an inside job, the titular duo deceived and trapped by powerful, but notoriously unstable, transient elements. I joked that being trapped forever with Joanna Lumley couldn’t be too bad but the reality was that the very final scene, Sapphire and Steel gazing hopelessly from the window of a service station cafe as they receded into a starry eternity, was a gut punch ending which no-one who saw it ever forgot.

Well, it's a good thing we've got that chess set to pass the time...
Allegedly there were plans to release them the following season, but in an equally inexplicable move the very popular programme was dropped amid television corporate takeovers. It seems fitting that a series which began so mysteriously left us in exactly the same way.

For me the biggest enigma remains our stars. Even in 1979 I could recognise that Lumley and McCallum had cache and usually appeared in very expensive transatlantic productions. (McCallum could even still be considered a movie star). I could also see that Sapphire and Steel’s budget wouldn’t cover the coffee bill on their usual gigs. The programme was scheduled around their availability and surely spent all its money on them. But to me it seems akin to Brando doing a soap opera in his prime (or Robert de Niro doing Rocky and Bullwinkle. Oh, hang on…) How on earth did the programme makers pull off such an incredible casting coup with almost non-existent resources?

But what ever it took, it was well worth it - Lumley and McCallum completely and utterly carried Sapphire and Steel - convincing, compelling and colossally cool.

Friends and I weren’t cool at all, but loved the programme so much we gave each other our own element designations. I was a redhead, and a bit bendy, so quite naturally became ‘Copper’. Another chose ‘Carborundum’ due to a perceived abrasiveness and a third friend with legendary powers of flatulence was christened ‘Sulphur’. Difficult to imagine what kind of mission such a lacklustre team might be despatched to, although I believe we might just about have held our own against the notorious belligerent flying swansdown pillows in Assignment 3.

*I can’t help myself. I’ve recently re-watched some of the programme and done some research, so I’ll be following up soon with a more factual, behind-the-scenes post which might answer some of these questions. Possibly.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Assembly Line: Part Five - The Dread Baron

Remember that nice Mr Frankenstein from the previous film?
There is absolutely no trace of him here.

Cushing's piercing blue eyes are cold shards of ice, and everyone he meets in this film suffers from the encounter. The reality of the Baron being the true Frankenstein monster might have been implied in the past, but here it is explicit. Murder, blackmail even sexual violence seep from beneath his urbane and deceptively slight exterior and our sympathies quite naturally lie with almost everyone else in the film. 

Except, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, again unlike the previous film, is unquestionably Cushing's show from start to finish. He gives full vent to  an utterly irredeemable and sociopathic characterisation, summed up by Thorley Walters bumbling Police Inspector (who never comes close to cornering his quarry) as  a "Mad and dangerous medical adventurer".

The sound effects do all the work in this scene...
The plot is so engaging and so well performed that we forget we're watching a Frankenstein film without a surgically created creature stumbling around - Freddie Jones' extremely sympathetic portrayal as brain transplant patient Dr Richter/Brandt hardly counts.

I have to come back again to the question of the Baron's hands, which he appears to have full use of again.  If I was to nerd logic this wildly inconsistent series into a continuous story I'd wonder about the two or three instances here where the Baron administers a slap and the poor recipient reacts as if they've been hit by a brick - at some point could he have surgically replaced his own hands, perhaps with constructions in part a little harder than flesh?

Carl and Anna are about to wish they'd never met 'Dr Victor'.
Veronica Carlson gives a well observed and tragic performance as Anna, and is really put through the wringer in this film. Being left to face the wrath of her lodgers when the Baron forces her to evict them, becoming his personal barista and then suffering like no Hammer heroine has before when a burst water main pipe in her garden exposes a corpse which she must then quickly conceal, all the while being showered in cold water and mud.
Teeth chattering so hard that she thought they might break, Carlson was rescued by Roger Moore of all people.  Filming The Saint in a neighbouring studio, he let her use his dressing room to recover: in a hot bath with a glass of brandy.

Less amusing is the scene between her and Cushing which Hammer Executive James Carreras, himself under pressure from American distributors,  insisted be included at the last minute. The Baron's assault on Anna is an entirely unnecessary excess out of character and step with the rest of the film - and as intensely reluctant as the actors were to perform the sequence they both imbue it with more conviction than it deserved. Carlson still recalls Cushing's extreme sensitivity through the whole ordeal, taking her out for a meal so they could broach how to best get through it.

Moving on from this brief scene, the film as a whole is held up as one of Hammer's best, a summation I would unhesitatingly agree with.  I think it is the best of the Frankenstein series so far, and despite being one of the later entries would recommend it as a good starting point for someone interested in dipping their toes into Hammer's pool of Kensington gore.

There are two more films to cover, (each very worthwhile in their own unique ways), but the Hammer Frankenstein cycle could have ended with distinction, and very satisfactorily, here - providing a fitting end for the wicked Baron. 
Or does it?

"...You must choose between the flames and the police, Frankenstein..."

Monday, 19 October 2015

Swiss Army Wife

You can't move around here for hammering and sawing most weekends, each month.  I live with a DIH expert - 'Does It Herself'.

The first NZ Gardener project, Dovecote by Rose, Doves by me...
At least a couple of weekends each month are becoming increasingly devoted to bouts of creativity and sometimes farcical photo shoots.
Paint and brushes are involved, but it's not me - it's my polymath spouse who this year became a regular columnist for New Zealand Gardener.  While I pedal my meagre scribblings for free she is commanding a double page colour spread in a glossy magazine each month.

Of course I'm thrilled for her, and constantly astonished by the meticulously constructed and elegantly realised carpentry projects which she appears to conjure into sturdy three dimensions directly from her mind.
I would still be drafting preliminary drawings while she is busy sawing-up lengths of timber and quickly forming the skeleton of a construction she can already vividly see in it's finished form.
If it's not obvious, this is a kind of magic to me.  I could draw you a mean dovecote or wood shelter, but probably never build one - certainly nothing so well-made and fitting so perfectly together as Rose can.

A seletion of 'Tool Belle' pages from Your Weekend
The process actually began a couple of years ago, when the Your Weekend magazine editor wanted to introduce a regular DIY column and, on the strength of articles I'd written about our recent house build, asked me if I was up to it. I had to admit that I wasn't, but I knew someone who was...
And so 'Tool Belle' was born, a two page column which ran every month for a couple of years, ending when Rose decided to bow out with a change of editors.  She felt that she'd done everything she could with Tool Belle, and the projects were taking up an increasing amount of time in the weekends and new ideas harder to come up with.

Some time afterwards, New Zealand Gardener got in touch.  Unlike Your Weekend this is a long-established monthly glossy magazine.  What drew Rose back, apart from slightly more money, was the emphasis on garden-based projects.
Like 50% of the Tool Belle articles, these projects are entirely sponsored by Resene, and so the final construction needs to be suitable for painting. They tend to be larger- scale, more complex carpentry-based assignments and so Rose has developed  relationship with the local timber merchants.

Each project has  'easy to follow' step-by-step instructions -
and most are photographed in our neighbour's beautiful (and sheltered) garden.
On accompanying her on these raw material purchasing missions, the timber yard assistants always used to direct their questions to me; dealing with a woman was somewhat outside their experience.  Those days are well and truly over now.    
In their interaction with what must appear to be a deluded, but determined, lady life-styler, their reaction who has gone from disbelief, to wry amusement, to eventual acceptance bordering on respect - now offering useful tips and recommending new tools for her to buy.

A winter planter, with chickens.
There's no doubt that these projects take up a lot of time, but I'd surmise that they are also very rewarding, and very practical.  The articles appear to be well-received as well, at least one reader having built a wood shelter for themselves.

Enough from me, here's a selection of wooden wonders (click to enlarge)...

Monday, 12 October 2015

Looking in on Classics: Part One - Tempestuous Planet

William Shakespeare invented Star Trek via one of history's best Science fiction films, and for our first Classic film night we watched the point where the Bard and Chekov met.

I was caught on the train last week with nothing to do.  For once I didn't have 'homework' and I'd left my book at home.  It was desperate, so I watched an Adam Sandler film.  Don't worry this blog is absolutely not going to be about Pixels, but rather, what my wife and I watching it led to.
Being totally unpretentious, unlike myself, Rose was quite happy to while away an hour, chuckling at the few funny parts and happy just to be entertained during a boring commute.  Whereas I, watching an ageing, expanding Sandler deadpan his way through a film which has one good idea and wastes talent like Sean Bean, Brian Cox and Michelle Monaghan unforgivably, hated myself a little bit.

I know I willingly consume more than my fair share of what many people would call utter rubbish, but I couldn't help but think that there are so many truly good films out there... if we could gain at the very least distraction from this one, wouldn't we get so much more out of making an effort to see some of the greats?

And so 'Classic Film Night' was born.  Convincing Rose that I wasn't just going to make her watch Hammer (as wonderful as that would be) we drew up simple guidelines.
The time period was to be anything before the 1990s and the chooser was to select a film which the other person hadn't seen before.
Being the one with the at-home film collection I got to go first, and knew exactly what I was going to dust off.  I couldn't remember a time that I hadn't loved 1956's Forbidden Planet - but how was it going to hold up almost sixty years after it was made?

What surprises me first of all is that on some primal level I'm still scared of the famous Monster from the Id.  What you can't see and have to imagine is always more frightening than what you are shown applies, except we glimpse enough of the embodiment of Morbius's dark side for Rose to correctly point out that it looks somewhat like the Warner Bros cartoon Tasmanian Devil.  Although the electric fence scene is literally the stuff of childhood nightmares, but it's the climax, when the audience and the characters realise that no amount of metal doors and barriers are going to keep it out which really does it for me.  

There is no where in the world to run to when the monster is your own primal and destructive impulses, actualised and powered by the entire world itself.   Even more than this, it's the sound design, the unsettling electronic score and sound effects - particularly the howling of the Krell generators and the roaring of the unstoppable beast itself.

While living in Britain we hugely enjoyed a musical called Return to the Forbidden Planet.  This took Shakespeare's The Tempest, widely acknowledged as the direct inspiration for Forbidden Planet, and then recombined it with the film itself, adding barnstorming hits from the 50s and 60s to produce a fantastic night's entertainment. 

This prepared Rose slightly for what to expect, but at times I feared the pacing of the film might lose her.  This definitely dates Forbidden Planet, as does some of the attempts at comedy relief and the extremely uncomfortable scenes involving one of the Space Cruiser crewmen attempting to take advantage of Altaira, a teenager who has never seen a man other than her own father before.  Walter Pidgeon seems to struggle with any scene requiring a display of emotion, although the implied inappropriate feelings he might have for his own daughter give his character more weight than is obvious on screen.

Nice trick, Doctor Morbius, but why are you thinking about your daughter in a minidress?

But on the plus side the immortal Robbie the Robot continues to earn his cult status and the production's ground-breaking effects and production design still turns heads even today.  But for me, the revelation was Anne Francis. 

The stars of  Forbidden Planet

I know it's tragic but I have to acknowledge that when I first saw this film I would have barely noticed her, whereas now it's difficult for me to look anywhere else.  Rose's observation that Altaira had 'sturdy thighs' alerted me to the fact that we were watching this DVD on the wrong aspect ratio, and Ms Francis' lithe figure was restored at the touch of a button.  My ageing lechery aside, she gives a genuinely good performance, working with very little and wearing about the same to give Altaira depth and conviction.  Francis went on to enjoy a very long award nominated career, and it's not difficult to see why.

The verdict for our first Classic film night was positive, Rose deciding that she enjoyed this return to the Forbidden Planet, the combination of Robby, costume design and storyline earning a pass. 
Next week is her choice, a Franco Zefferelli film which inspired her as a youngster: Brother Son, Sister Moon.

These few paragraphs are worth clicking on and reading,
written by someone who was a kid in 1956 when this film was released.

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Time and Relative Dimensions of Ape

I once saw Doctor Who in a film whose plotting makes the current series look wholly unremarkable and conservative by comparison.

Doctor Who is back, and during the flurry of frenetic out-of-sequence incidents which serve as season openers these days, (yes, I've become a grumpy old fan) I found myself wistfully recalling a time when his appearance was a complete surprise.

Back when I was at school they used to show films at lunchtime - actual cinematic releases (of a certain vintage) which were usually screened over two or three consecutive days in winter.  One otherwise ordinary Monday we listened  unenthusiastically as our 4th form teacher read the morning notices, but he suddenly got my full attention with the final item that the lunchtime film was King Kong.

Already being a geek my first thought was "Which one?"  I assumed the 76 version was a safe bet, and friends and I paid our 50 cents at the door, finding seats in a surprisingly packed AV room and expecting a grubby pre-pubescent fix of Jessica Lange.

The production was in colour but opened with a model submarine passing over the camera before the unforgettable title King Kong Escapes blazed across the screen.
As I say, I was a geek and knew exactly what we were in store for, and the film didn't disappoint. 'Suit-mation' antics abounded, with karate-kicking dinosaurs, variable model effects, a giant robotic Kong and badly dubbed Japanese actors.   This was the second and final Japanese Kong film from the legendary Toho Studios, and so gloriously awful that it was actually great fun. Each lunch-time session was packed out and for the first time ever a repeat evening screening was arranged.

But my favourite part was the ripple of surprise which passed over the teenage audience when all-American hero Rhodes Reason deduces the identity of the villain behind the sub 'spy-fi' evil scheme which the vaguely ties the series of monster suit scuffles together:
"... it's that international Judas, Doctor Who"

There is an infamous quote from a producer at the BBC when having first heard the proposed title of their new science fiction series for children, stating he thought Doctor Who sounded like a Chinese restaurant.  Casual racism aside the name has perhaps always had a vaguely oriental sound (in fact, the character my or may not be named as 'Dr. Hu' in the King Kong Escapes end credits, depending upon which source you refer to).  So it's all simply a strange co-incidence, of course.

Except... distinguished character actor Hideyo Amamoto is decked out in a silver wig, occasional cape and something very like an astrakhan cap, looking for all the world like an evil eastern first Doctor.

Doctor Who (left) and Doctor Who
This film was made in 1967 and the impact of the television series and the Cushing films would have been felt, particularly in Britain where the soundtrack for King Kong Escapes was recorded.

So, a clear and present link between King Kong and Doctor Who? As wonderful as that would be, unfortunately, it seems not.

King Kong Escapes was actually based upon, of all things, an American animated children's series(the first ever to be produced in Japan) called the King Kong Show.
Running from 1966 to 1969 it was here that the character of  Dr. Who was introduced, and he looked like this:

Dr Who
The King Kong Show was heavily influenced by another British institution, down to the surname of the family who befriend the titular giant ape: Bond.  And the recurring villain with his Ernst Blofeld tendencies appears to be simply named in reference to the first screen James Bond villain: Dr No.

So, with a Roger-Moore-like eyebrow waggle, 007 wins the day again?  Perhaps, but still, looking at Mr Amamoto again you really have to wonder...

"Turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so,  hmmmm?"