Having kept to single theme post-wise last week, I've decided that I want to be eclectic this week. So, after yesterday's musings about Fidel Castro and our tendency toward tunnel vision when it comes to assessing the lives of public figures, I thought I'd just ramble a bit. Following yesterday's post about the death of Castro, it's important to remember that he wasn't the only public figure to have passed away during the past few days. Joining this year's veritable holocaust of celebrities, Ron Glass died on Friday. Yeah, I know, Ron who? many of you are saying. But for some of us Ron Glass was a familiar and beloved figure, having played Detective Ron Harris for pretty much the entire run of Barney Miller. Harris was the squad room intellectual, (until the arrival of Detective Dietrich and his store of esoteric knowledge in series three, that is), and at one point wrote a highly fictionalised version of his career as a New York cop, which became an unexpected bestseller and boosted his ego until it became unbearable to his colleagues. But even at his arrogant worst, Harris remained a witty and urbane character and it is a tribute to Glass' acting skills that the character never became completely dislikeable. Anyway, as my tribute to Glass, I've spent the past few days watching a selection of episodes from Barney Miller. Very much of its era, Barney Miller remains an excellent example of the seventies and eighties US ensemble sitcom.
To change the subject completely, you might recall that model railway locomotive O bought relatively cheaply on eBay, due to the fact that it had been repainted into the wrong livery. Well, I've finally obtained a paint stripper that should, if the claims on the bottle are correct, remove the existing paint schemed, leaving the model ready for repainting. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find the time to test the paint stripper out, prior to applying it to the whole model, so my restoration project still hasn't moved on that much. I have, however, decided that, as I don't actually have a functional model railway layout at the moment, due to the fact that my spare room, where it would normally live, is currently full of junk awaiting disposal, I'm going to have to set a up smaller 'test track., where I can run and photograph, the new locomotive and other projects as they progress. I say 'test track', but it will, in reality. be a small, eight foot by four foot, layout, where I can also experiment with stuff like electrics, landscaping and the like. All I have to do is find time to buy the materials I need to start this new layout. Well, I've rambled enough. Who knows what the next post will bring on this week of eclecticism?
We can't let the passing of Fidel Castro go unremarked. An icon to those of us who like to piss off right wing knee jerk reactionaries, the public commentaries on his life which have followed his death have demonstrated the folly trying to make real life figures conform to our simple dualist expectations: they can be only good or bad, according our personal prejudices. Inevitably, we all perceived Fidel in terms which conformed with our own world views - for Jeremy Corbyn he was a hero of socialism, bringing relief to the oppressed Cuban people, whereas, for Donald Trump, he was an evil dictator, suppressing democracy and oppressing his enemies. Neither perception allows for the possibility that Fidel, like any other historical figure (or any human being, for that matter), could be a complex and multi-faceted character, capable of simultaneously being both saviour and oppressor. So it is that Fidel Castro undoubtedly improved the lives of the Cuban people by toppling the Batista regime (which effectively allowed the country to be run for the benefit of the US mobs) and instituting a revolution which has brought them universal healthcare and education. It also shouldn't be forgotten that he came to power on the back of a genuinely popular uprising.
On the other hand, Cuba under Castro was a one party state, with dissent suppressed, often violently and an unwillingness to put the undoubted popularity of many of the regime's policies to the test at the ballot box and thereby legitimise them in the eyes of the international community. The poor human rights record of Cuba under Castro is also indefensible, with 'enemies of the state' being imprisoned without trial and subjected to torture, not to mention the suppression of artistic expression (if it didn't conform to state dictated norms) and institutionalised homophobia. Obviously, all of the good stuff can't cancel out this dark side to Castro's revolution: there is no 'cosmic balance' which measures the good and bad we do and determines which side of the scales, overall, we end up on. But we shouldn't ignore the good whilst highlighting the bad when assessing someone like Castro - wherever we stand on him, we surely have to, at the very least, acknowledge the existence of the other perspective.
But that's the trouble, as human beings, we tend to want to be able to neatly categorize people on a simplistic, black and white, basis. We blinker ourselves to their faults/virtues depending upon our perception of them, which frequently renders meaningful debate impossible. Just look at the case of Tony Blair - all those Corbynistas just can't see beyond his role in the invasion of Iraq and therefore refuse to have truck with any political policy 'tainted' by association with him. On the other side, his supporters constantly seek to justify a pretty much unjustifiable war in order to preserve the rest of his political legacy. They are both right and they are both wrong. It is perfectly possible to acknowledge that Blair was spectacularly wrong on at least one major issue, yet still achieved a lot of good for a lot of people with many of his domestic policies. Just like Fidel, he was simultaneously both hero and villain. Neither could be anything else, of course, as this is the human condition.
I did a 'Random Movie Trailer' post about The Mutations a while ago, since then, I've actually managed to see it in full, so I thought I'd round of our week of schlock by having a closer look at it. One of a plethora of independently produced horror movies that appeared in the early seventies, as Britain's established horror producers, Hammer, Amicus and Tigon slid into terminal decline, The Mutations is curiously old fashioned. Whilst other independent horror movies often looked forward to the slaher and gore movies of the eighties and nineties, The Mutations looks backward, clearly drawing inspiration from the Universal Frankenstein films and, most significantly, Tod Browning's notorious Freaks, with its combination of a traditional mad scientist plot with a freak show background. But, it was the seventies, so there were also the, now obligatory, nude scenes.
The film involves crazy university lecturer Donald Pleasance moonlighting as a crazy scientist attempting to create a new life form which fuses plant and animal, using his unwitting students as experimental subjects. The victims are abducted for Pleasance by a group of circus freaks, led by real life dwarf Michael Dunn (who, along with Skip Martin, enjoyed a long career in such roles) and a pre-Doctor Who Tom Baker wearing heavy make up which, I assume, is meant to represent acromegaly Whilst Dunn is a less than enthusiastic participant in the abductions, Baker, who runs the freak show, is a full partner in Pleasance's nefarious activities, even assisting him in his lab. Pleasance has apparently promised Baker that he will cure his deformities in return for his assistance, (in much the same way that Karloff's Dr Neimann promised J. Carroll Naish's hunchback that he'd rectify his spinal problems in 1944's House of Frankenstein).
Inevitably, the experiments Pleasance carries out in his impressive, Frankenstein-style lab, (situated, naturally, in his old dark house), don't turn out well and tend to end up in Baker's freak show as new exhibits. These failures include an unfortunate female student who becomes a 'Lizard Woman' and her boyfriend, who ends up as the magnificently barmy 'Venus Fly Trap Man', after he unwisely investigates her disappearance. It is the latter creature (a bizarre looking rubber suit monster whose chest opens up to entrap his prey, whose life force he absorbs) that provides the film's climax, crashing through the skylight in Pleasance's lab, to attack the mad scientist just as he is conducting his latest experiment upon Julie Ege. Baker, meanwhile, falls foul of the dogs which guard Pleasance's house, after the rest of the freak show members. led by Dunn, switch sides.
Directed by celebrated cinematographer Jack Cardiff, (who directed a number of schlocky genre movies in-between cinematography gigs), The Mutations, not surprisingly, looks a lot better than its low budget would suggest. Despite its somewhat traditional subject matter and plot structure, the film has a surprisingly seedy feel, with its landscape of cramped student bedsits and damp and wintry looking London locations, including an out of season Battersea Park playing host to the freak show, creating a sense of urban isolation and loneliness. Despite living in the middle of a teeming city, people can vanish without anyone noticing for days, or be chased through deserted residential streets without finding help or sanctuary. The sleaziness culminates in Baker's desperate visit to a Soho prostitute, a sequence which becomes surprisingly poignant, with the lifetime of rejection and isolation which motivates the freak show owner laid bare. Indeed, despite being virtually unrecognisable under his heavy make up, Baker gives a spirited performance throughout the film, whether drawing unexpected audience sympathy in the Soho scene, or furiously rejecting the overtures of friendship from the 'freaks'. Pleasance gives a relatively restrained performance in the sort of role he could probably have played in his sleep by 1974, going for understated insanity rather than full blown craziness, in his portrayal of the scientist.
However, despite the film's many virtues, which include some good acting performances, decent production values, good pace and, for their day and budget, reasonable special effects, The Mutations remains problematical. Despite the fact that it eventually makes the denizens of the freak show sympathetic characters, it can't obscure the fact that it also exploits them for horror value, presenting them as being as 'unnatural' as Pleasance's creations. From their first appearance, when Dunn and a fellow dwarf follow and abduct a girl in the park, they are deployed as figures of menace and fear - the girl runs in fear from a dwarf for no other reason than he is a dwarf. The exploitation of their status as disturbing anomalies is emphasised further in the sequence where the students visit the freak show and various of the 'freaks' are paraded before the cameras, for the replusion and titillation of both the show's audience and the cinema audience. The film's treatment of these characters seems hugely insensitive, even for 1974, and feels as if it belongs in an earlier era. Perhaps I'm being over sensitive from my twenty first century perspective - maybe there still were freak shows of this type touring the UK in the seventies. Nevertheless, films which parade real 'freaks' for horror value, always make me feel uneasy. Not only is it distasteful and exploitative, but it also suggests that the movie has no confidence in the horrific potential of its own plot and monsters. Which is a pity as The Mutations is, otherwise, a reasonably entertaining B-horror movie.
'What is Mondo?' asks the titular presenter of Mr Mike's Mondo Video, (Saturday Night Live alumni Mike O'Donoghue, who also directed and co-wrote this 1979 parody of the Mondo genre). It's a good question and one that we'll probably not answer here, but as I've decided that we're having a 'Schlock' week here at Sleaze Diary, it seems appropriate to take a look at this schlockiest of movie genres. To start at the beginning, the whole Mondo genre takes its name from 1962's Mondo Cane, an Italian documentary which purported to show footage of unusual rituals and social/sexual practices from around the world, be that man hunting women in New Guinea, German drunks, cross dressing Gurkhas or Cargo Cults. There is a particular emphasis upon animal cruelty, with sequences involving the force feeding of geese to produce foie gras, the eating of dogs in Taiwan and shark hunting in Malaysia, and rituals surrounding the dead and dying. The film was a surprise global hit and, consequently, spawned an entire genre. The subsequent Mondos included a direct sequel to Mondo Cane (composed mainly of unused footage from the first), and numerous imitators, often focusing on a single theme, such as Women of the World or Sweden: Heaven and Hell. Although the genre eventually encompassed films made in the US and Germany, it remained an essentially Italian phenomena.
Clearly designed to shock, the Mondo movies existed to provide forbidden thrills to cinemagoers, showing them stuff they couldn't see either on TV or in 'legitimate' documentaries. Tabloid film-making, in essence. Although often described a 'shockumentaries', Mondo films are probably more accurately described as 'exploitation documentaries', sharing their sensationalist tone and subject matter with more conventional exploitation movies. The problem, as far as many critics were concerned, wasn't so much the exploitation element to the films' subject matter, (although, particularly in the UK there was much objection to the scenes of animal cruelty), but the fact that they presented it as being factual. The accusation leveled at them was that much of the footage was faked by the film makers. And, indeed, some of it was, particularly in the later movies where, on occaision, you can even recognise some of the actors pretending to be real people. However, the makers of Mondo Cane always maintained that none of their footage was faked. Which, I suspect, was technically true: I don't doubt that the bizarre (to westerners, at least) rituals they showed were based on real rituals and the participants genuine locals, but I strongly suspect that they have been recreated for the cameras, rather than the crew simply turning up, fortuitously, at exactly the right time to film the real thing.
But does it matter whether the 'documentary' footage presented by Mondo movies is real or not? Whilst a handful of Mondos might claim to have some serious purpose - Africa Addio and Addio Zio Tom come to mind -but most present themselves simply as entertainment. Besides, to criticize the Mondo genre for blurring the line between fact and fiction seems somewhat hypocritical from the standpoint of the twenty first century, where such techniques have become the norm, not just in so-called reality TV, but also documentaries. Remember the short lived furore when it ws revealed that an Arctic sequence involving polar bear cubs in a BBC David Atte borough documentary had been recreated for the benefit of the cameras? If even our most revered documentary makers think such techniques are OK then Mondo has clearly become mainstream. But it is in 'reality' TV that we see the true legacy of Mondo movies, with shows like Made in Chelsea purporting to show the 'real lives' of their subjects, but simultaneously admitting that some scenes have been 'restaged' for TV. But artifice has always been a significant part of supposedly legitimate factual TV. A friend of mine once appeared in an episode of one of those Great Train Journeys series with Micheal Portillo and described to me how all of his scenes were filmed in one take, with Portillo's questions and reactions filmed seperately, the whole thing spliced together in the editing suite to make it appear that they were actually having a conversation. In fact, at least one of the cutaways to Portillo supposedly reacting to something my friend said was taken from a completely different sequence and his reaction is actually to something completely different.
The truth is that no matter how spontaneous much factual TV might appear, in reality, quite a bit of it has been rehearsed. Even something like Shed and Buried, which regulars here will know is a particular favourite of mine when it comes to such shows. Shocking though it might seem, when we see Henry and Sam rock up to someone's barn or shed for a rummage, the fact is that this isn't the first time they've met the owner of the premises - this is all being restaged for the benefit of the cameras (which, amazingly, weren't just there to capture their arrival from the right angle by coincidence), But does it lessen my enjoyment of the programme? Of course not. It makes for a far more polished production. The same is true of all those programmes where reporters knock on an interviewees door and it is immediately opened by the later, who warmly greets the reporter - trust me, that's been carefully rehearsed. They aren't really meeting for the first time. But it doesn't matter, as it is a convention we've come to accept. Just like Mondo movies - we know that, at least in part, they aren't real. That's the accepted convention of the genre. But, to get back to the original point and to try and answer the question 'What is Mondo?', these days we'd have to say that it is mainstream TV, where reality is what we choose to believe it to be.
One of those international co-productions which proliferated in the seventies, Horror Express is a film which holds fond memories for me, as I recall seeing it when it first came onto UK TV when I was still in my teens. I watched it again recently, on the Horror Channel, and still found it bizarrely entertaining. The film, which mixes science fiction with horror, apparently owes its genesis to the purchase of a set of train miniatures and sets by the producers, who then structured two movies around their investment. (The other film was the western Pancho Villa, which starred Horror Express' 'Special Guest Star' Telly Savalas. Which leads one to assume that shooting on Pancho Villa ended early and Savalas still had a day, or two, left on his contract, explaining his fleeting presence in Horror Express).
The period train setting inevitably gives the film something of a Murder on the Orient Express vibe, a feeling emphasised by the presence of an eclectic collection of passengers - Russian aristocrat, Rasputin-type mad monk, police inspector, lady safe cracker, scientist and a pair of British paleontologists - and a plot structured around an investigation into who is killing the various characters. (It later transmogrifies into a 'who is the monster?' investigation). The focus of the action is the frozen prehistoric ape man, possibly the 'missing link', which Christopher Lee's Professor Saxton has discovered in Manchuria and is now transporting back to Europe on the train. The discovery has attracted the attention of Lee's rival Dr Wells (Peter Cushing), who is desperate to examine the contents of Saxton's crate, stowed in the baggage van. Unfortunately for both of them, the frozen creature is host to an alien life force desperate to find a way back to its own planet. As the ape man begins to thaw, the alien fries the brains of various characters who approach it, acquiring their knowledge and memories. After a brief rampage, the now reanimated ape man is shot and killed by a police inspector travelling on the train, but not before the alien presence has transferred itself to the inspector's body. Saxton and Wells are inevitably forced to join forces as the killings aboard the train continue. Things are complicated by a mad monk who believes the alien is Satan and decides to swap sides and become his acolyte and Savalas' Cossack officer and his men who board the train at a remote station.
The film's greatest strength is undoubtedly the presence of Cushing and Lee, both on excellent form, delivering well judged performances: playing it relatively straight, but knowing when not to take things too seriously. By contrast, Telly Savalas delivers an incredibly over the top performance in his relatively brief appearance. He gives the distinct impression that he is only there due to contractual obligations, barely keeping a straight face, with his Captain Kazan coming over as a New York gangster rather than an Imperial Russian officer. It is, however, a hugely entertaining turn, which doesn't seem as jarring as it should due to the fact that the whole film feels slightly surreal. Indeed, it is one of those movies whose scenario is heavily dependent upon the viewers' suspension of disbelief. As long as you accept the initial set up of a frozen fossil hominid playing host to an alien intelligence, then everything that follows more or less makes sense. That said, even if you accept the initial scenario, there are several developments which strain that suspension of disbelief. Why, for instance, does the Inspector's left hand turn into a hairy replica of the ape man's hand when he is taken over by the alien? The transference of physical charaxteristics of the previous host makes no sense. Moreover, when the alien subsequently jumps into the monk's body, neither of his hands turn hairy. He does, however, acquire the hitherto unmentioned ability to reanimate the dead as zombies.
But these are minor quibbles. Horror Express is a thorough;y enjoyable, albeit barking mad, movie, with surprisingly good production values, convincing miniatures work, entertaining performances from its leads, a reasonably original concept behind its plot and is well paced, to boot. With the presence of Cushing and Lee, its period setting and somewhat light hearted tone, Horror Express is reminiscent not so much of a Hammer film, as some have claimed, but rather a Tigon production of the same era, Blood Beast Terror or The Creeping Flesh, for instance. (Both of which are utterly barmy movies which I've enjoyed immensely). Anyway, Horror Express is currently part of the Horror Channel's rotation (although they've sourced a pretty poor print for their screenings), so you can check it out for yourselves.
After the various meanderings and diversions of the past couple of weeks, I was hoping to get back to the schlock movies for a while this week. My plans, however, have, as ever, been blown off course somewhat by other events. So, instead of kicking off with a write up of a seventies horror flick, (that, hopefully, will now come later in the week), We'll start with a quick random movie trailer for another forgotten seventies horror film. 1973's Sssss (aka Ssssnake) is a film I've only ever seen in German. I don't speak German, but that really doesn't matter. This is the sort of film where you really don't need to know what's being said to understand what's happening. Interestingly, it offers a rare leading role to character actor Strother Martin, whose whining and wheedling minor outlaws, small town bankers and grubby hustlers have graced many a western. Here, he's a deranged herpetologist obsessed with turning a human into a snake. Consequently, he starts injecting his daughter's unwitting boyfriend, (also his assistant), played by Dirk Benedict (long before either Battlestar Galactica or the A-Team), with cobra venom.
Benedict inevitably starts trying to bite people, before going all scaly, losing his limbs and slithering about the floor like a snake. Eventually, he turns into a real cobra, not a giant one, just a regular one, which subsequently dies in a climactic fight with a mongoose. Yes, really. Oh, and Martin dies after being bitten by another of his snakes. Along the way various people threatening to interfere with Martin's plans are killed by his snakes (real ones, not ones which used to be people) and there's a diversion to a carnival freak show, where one of Martin's earlier, less successful, experiments is on show. And that's about it. It's a pretty odd little movie, but it has all the right ingredients for a minor schlock classic: a crazy scientist, carnivals, freak shows, rubbery monsters and a small town setting. But these elements never quite gel and it all feels slightly unsatisfactory - pergaps the anti-climactic ending is to blame. To be fair, it's surprisingly ruthless, with most of the sympathetic characters dead by the end of the film's running time. Also, Martin, even in German, makes for a suitably slimy and deranged villain.
So, we're off on what, I hope, will be a week of schlock. Stay tuned.
Well, it's Children in Need again, when the BBC generously tries to boost the pub trade by displacing its regular Friday night schedule with its annual telethon. The other channels all graciously decline to complete, (because its for charity, so we all should be forced to watch it), putting on repeats and stuff they would never normally schedule in prime time. Thereby depriving me of my usual dose of Friday night trash TV therapy. Which is how I come to find myself watching Goldeneye again, which is currently showing on ITV 4. The fact that it is now old enough to be shown on ITV's fourth channel, rather than the main channel or ITV 2, is an indication that Pierce Brosnan has now joined the ranks of Connery, Lazenby, Moore and Dalton as a 'classic' Bond, too far in the past to appeal to younger viewers. It's still a reasonably entertaining film, although it is scary to realise that it is now twenty years since I saw it at the cinema during its original release. Luckily, I have other entertainment in reserve for this cold Friday evening. Amongst these is an episode of Cash Cowboys I recorded earlier today.
If you aren't aware of what Cash Cowboys is, amongst other things it is the current preferred daytime TV viewing of my best friend - she started texting me about it earlier this week, (yes, she probably is insane, but I am, nonetheless, very fond of her) - which is why I've been recording it while I've been at work and watching it in the evenings. Basically, it is like American Pickers, which shows on Dave, except that it is in Canada and involves more beards, cowboy boots and stetsons. Obviously, if you've never seen American Pickers, then that previous explanation is meaningless. Put simply, both series involve a couple of dudes driving around in a van, rummaging through the barns, sheds and collections of people they encounter along the road and trying to find stuff they can bid for, in the hope they can sell it on for a profit. The main difference between Cash Cowboys (which, I've learned, is actually called Canadian Pickers in its native Canada) and American Pickers is that the Canadian guys are just so much more laid back. Moreover, everyone in Canada seems just so polite. Which makes for very relaxed viewing. It is far less frenetic than another of my daytime TV guilty pleasures, Storage Hunters, for instance. Which makes a nice change. Consequently, though, Cash Cowboys lacks the underlying sense of threat implicit in American Pickers: you can't help but fear that at any moment the guys in the latter show are going to have a potentially fatal encounter with a family of murderous hillbillies. Whilst Cash Cowboys hasn't quite displaced Travel Channel's Shed and Buried as my go to laid back TV show to unwind to, it does have the advantage that I haven't yet seen every episode at least five times. Anyway, I'm off to watch that episode I've got recorded...
Whilst slumped in front of the TV the other evening, it occurred to me that even our leisure time is being deskilled. For those of you unfamiliar with the nomenclature of sociology, deskilling is the process by which formerly complex tasks requiring skill and experience to complete, are replaced by a streamlined process comprised of a series of simplified tasks, which are often mechanised and which can be completed with little or no training. Essentially, it is what happened when the production line replaced small groups of artisans operating out of workshops, hand crafting components, as the main industrial process. Those skilled artisans, who could charge relatively high rates for their work, were displaced by unskilled, or, at best, semi-skilled employees forced to accept a flat wage. Traditionally, this sort of deskilling, which conveniently forces down wages, was confined to the industrial sector, but, in past couple of decades, there have been concerted efforts, often on the back of modern IT systems, to deskill white collar work. Increasingly, there are attempts to break down office work into a series of simplistic tasks, which can be written on a 'job card' and, in theory, can be carried out by anyone, regardless of skill level.
But I've digressed from my original point: the deskilling of our leisure time. Nowadays, it all seems to involve us passively consuming entertainment streamed to us through our TVs, laptops, tablets and smart phones. We don't have to do anything other than decide what it is we want to watch or listen to, then watch or listen to it. There is no skill involved. Back in the day, before multi-channel TV and the internet, we used to have hobbies -we'd spend our time building plastic kits or model railways, or doing stuff like carpentry or engineering projects. I used to know people who had their own workshops or mini machine shops in their sheds and garages, where they used to do stuff like making their own furniture, or building things like miniature traction engines. If we weren't making things, were playing games, both the outdoor and indoor variety. With regard to the latter, there were all manner of quite complex board games, not to mention war games, both the board variety and the miniatures-based type, where you could use all those model tanks you'd built and those model soldiers you'd built.
Now, I know that we still have games, in the form of electronic games and computer games. I know that these do involve skill, but I can't help but feel that it isn't the same. These days, games of this type seem to based around reflexes and hand-eye co-ordination, rather than the more cerebral skills required of the games of my youth. Which, I know, is top do modern gaming a disservice, but there you are. But when the modern computer revolution started in earnest, it seemed to offer the prospect of new kinds of skilled leisure. I remember the days of things like the BBC Micro and the various Sinclair micro-computers, when we could still actually write programs for them ourselves. People even wrote their own games. But, slowly but surely, that changed and home PCs became things you simply used to run professionally produced software, with everything pre-written. It was the same with the internet: in the early days everyone was coding their own wild and wonderful websites, it seemed herald a new age of creativity. But, again, surely but slowly, surfing the net became an ever more passive experience, with proper websites giving way first to personal blogs (which at least were still creative, albeit using a pre-coded and hosted platform) then Facebook pages or Twitter accounts. The walled garden of social media platforms, where everything you see and experience can be moderated, measured and controlled and you only interact with people you know, have become the main internet experience for the majority of people. It's all about just consuming content pushed at us by others rather than creating our own.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not getting nostalgic and advocating that we return to the days when the main way to pass the long winter evenings ws to whittle away at a piece of wood. But it would be nice if we could just be a little less passive when we're not at work. The modern workplace is soul destroying enough, without our free time being reduced to merely consuming corporately created and approved 'content'. For me, the joy of creativity, be it writing stuff like this, creating stories for The Sleaze or recording and editing together podcasts and films, is what keeps me going through the stultifying dullness of work. With work becoming increasingly joyless and unsatisfying, I find myself turning to more and more creative outlets: the rekindling of my interest in model railways being one example. So stop just watching TV, or reading stuff like this on the web, and go and do something!
Nigel Farage has only got one ball. No, that's not the start of some old music hall song performed by the late Danny La Rue (look him up, kids), but a statement of fact. I'm sure that it is no coincidence that he shares this trait with Adolf Hitler (about whom the song was originally written) who, infamously, was shot in the testicles whilst serving in the German Army in World War One. (His fellow soldiers consequently nicknamed him 'screamer' because of his reaction to being shot in the knackers. Who says the Germans have no sense of humour?) Bearing in mind Farage's German wife, the moustache he unsuccessfully tried to grow earlier this year and his alleged attempts to get a German passport (he was seen queuing at the German Embassy in London, but denied it was for a passport), one can only conclude that the missing bollock is all part of an attempt to emulate his hero, Adolf Hitler. (I say 'hero' on the basis that, according to at least one former tutor at Dulwich College, the young Farage was greatly enamoured of the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini).
Now, I know that it might seem like poor taste to suggest such a thing when Farage himself claims that the absent gonad is the result of testicular cancer, but I find someone who likes to style himself as one of Britain's leading politicians, despite never having succeeded in being elected to parliament and incites riots when British judges make a decision he doesn't like and spreads hate speech, offensive. Moreover, his utterly unprincipled behaviour as a politician means that I wouldn't put anything past the bastard: he is willing to do just about anything to achieve his aims. I can only hope that his attempts to emulate Hitler culminate in him locking himself in a cellar before shooting himself in the head, his body subsequently dragged outside and crudely incinerated by his acolytes. Sadly, I doubt that we'll see this. Not least because, as Nige fawns around fellow crypto-fascist (I have no idea what that means, but it sounds good) President-elect Trump, he'll gradually realise that the best he can hope for is to fulfill the Mussolini role: the pompous buffoon to Trump's deluded fanatic.
Apparently, global warming and climate change is a hoax, perpetrated by the Chinese. According to President-elect Donald Trump, that is. But of course he'd say that, in order to deflect attention from the fact that he and his ilk want global climate change. In fact, it is essential for them. Let's just pause for a moment and stop to think just what climate change is all about. Which is factories and other industrial installations pumping vast amounts of noxious emissions into the earth's atmosphere. Quantities which the global ecosystem simply cannot deal with. Consequently, over time, the earth's atmosphere will become irrevocably changed. Indeed, it will eventually become incapable of sustaining human life, or any other life for that matter. Incapable of sustaining human life - but not necessarily some form of non-human life: life from another planet perhaps. That's right people, global warming is a conspiracy, but one being perpetrated not by the Chinese or environmentalists. Instead, it is being caused by aliens who walk among us. Aliens to whom long-term exposure to our atmosphere would be fatal, so they are seeking to change our atmosphere as part of their long-term plot to colonise the earth.
You know its true. Just think about it, who would benefit from a methane rich atmosphere other than aliens from a gas giant planet, like Jupiter, or Saturn? Clearly, this is a long term plan and the aliens must have been infiltrating earth societies for decades, possibly even centuries, in order to put it into action. For all we know, the entire industrial revolution could be down to their intervention. Obviously, their most logical disguises will be that of wealthy industrialists and billionaire businessmen, Clearly, they've managed to adopt some kind of human-like disguise, which allows relatively small numbers of them to live here in the short term. Perhaps it involves surgery, or maybe they are using android bodies which contain the life support systems they need to survive here. Whatever it is though, judging by Trump, they still haven't perfected the hair. It's so blindingly obvious that Trump is not of this earth that I just don't know why people can't see through his policies and recognise them for what they are: a prelude to alien conquest. Think about it: he's promoting racial and religious divisions, obviously hoping that large numbers of us will kill each other in a blood bath of hatred to make their subjugation of humanity easier. As for his promises to get America's industry working again - a clear precursor to the final coup de grace against humanity: lots of factories belching pollution into the atmosphere, bringing the point at which it becomes noxious to us, but palatable to them, closer!
(That's right folks, I watched John Carpenter's They Live again over the weekend. A movie which posited these ideas about the ruling capitalist elites a couple of decades ago. If only we had some of those glasses 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper found in the movie...)
Isn't it about time we just laid the past to rest and forgot about it? Remembrance Day or Armistice Day or whatever else you want to call it, of course. I actually said that out loud the other day, to mildly shocked reaction from those within earshot. But the fact is that, with every year that goes by, I dread the approach of 11 November more and more. I dislike the pressure put on us all by the media to wear a poppy, with the clear implication that if you don't you are some kind of traitor. Even more, I dislike the glorification of everything military during this time of year, the deification of war dead and the rampant nationalism. I absolutely hate the way the very date of 11 November has become some kind of fetish, with the absolute insistence that the two minute silence must be observed at 11 o'clock, whether you want to observe it or not or whether it is even practical to observe it. If we're forced to observe the silence on the 11 November, what's the point of Remembrance Sunday? Surely the point of moving the act of remembrance to the first Sunday after 11 November was that it mde it easier for people to observe it, as it wasn't a working day. Moreover, moving it from Armistice Day helped break the exclusive link with World War One and emphasise the fact that it was about remembering the fallen of all wars.
But, at the end of the day, isn't it time to let go of it all? Surely it can't be healthy to keep fixating on wars long past? I'm old enough that when I was at school there were enough veterans of World War One about that they used to get them to come in and talk to us about their experiences. The fact was that most of them had only terrible memories of the war and were glad to put it behind them. Most really didn't want to talk about it any detail. Likewise, I grew up with a lot of relatives who had served in the Second World War - most of them didn't want to talk about it either. They hated seeing it all raked up again in the form of TV series and movies. They certainly didn't have much time for things like Remembrance Sunday. But that's the thing - all those people who are so keen on perpetuating the empty rituals of commemoration have never actually served in a conflict, let alone one one as traumatic as either world war. Which brings us to the thing I hate most about this time of year - the way it has, in recent years, been hijacked by right-wingers with nationalist political agendas. They've completely devalued the event for me and, I suspect, a lot of other people.
Still, here in Crapchester all the local worthies were as 'respectful' as ever this Armistice Day, in order to generate the appropriate photo opportunities in the local press. But the day's solemnity was rather spoiled by this evening's firework display which apparently marked the switching on of the town's Christmas lights. Which confused me slightly a when i'd been at the far end of the main town centre shopping mall earlier, there were signs around the Christmas tree claiming that the switching on was next Friday. Maybe different bits of the shopping mall are holding rival ceremonies - perhaps it will culminate in some kind of conflict, with Christmas decorations being sabotaged in dead of night. That would certainly be more exciting than any of the municipal decorations I've so far seen. Perhaps one of them could claim that their decorations were actually a tribute to the fallen of Britain's wars? That would get them the endorsement of the local Tory party, not to mention UKIP and the BNP, for sure. And who wouldn't want that?
So, have we all calmed down? Yes, I know that Donald Trump is president-elect of the United States. I know that he's a right-wing, misogynistic demagogue unafraid to employ racism and homophobia to whip up support. I'm also aware that he is petty minded and vindictive and will undoubtedly be tempted to abuse his position of power to pursue personal vendettas. But hey, life goes on. I know that there have been large numbers of people out on the streets in some US cities, protesting against Trump before he's even taken office, but it's a bit late to be protesting now. I can't help but feel that it's a pity they didn't channel all that anger and energy to more effectively oppose Trump during the campaign. But that was part of the problem, as it seemed to me that parts of the anti-Trump brigade seemed equally intent upon undermining Hilary Clinton. I know that she wasn't anyone's ideal candidate, but if you really didn't want a Trump presidency, then supporting her was the only alternative.
I've already written at length on the subject of Trump's victory and the current onslaught on our political institutions being mounted by the extreme right in the UK in my latest editorial over at The Sleaze, so I won't repeat myself here. Other, that is, to reiterate that panic really isn't the best reaction to this latest development. The fact is that, on both sides of the Atlantic, the left has no one else to blame than themselves for this current ascendancy of the right. Ever since the financial crash in 2008, there has been a simmering resentment amongst those at the bottom, who have been hit worst not only by the recession but also its economic 'cures', toward the establishment. Sometimes it has boiled over into the sort of civil unrest we saw in the UK back in the summer of 2010. Back then I suggested that if the Labour party wanted a path back to power, it needed to harness that anger to form the basis of a radical political campaign. Instead, they first of all tried to out do the Tories in terms of promising spending cuts and economic austerity, before lurching into some half hearted barely left of centre policies for the 2015 election. Now it has lumbered itself with faux socialist Jeremy Corbyn who, like most middle class 'radicals', has no real grasp of the issues which really concern real working class people, let alone having any idea of how to address them. He just peddles the same dusty old backward-looking 'socialism' which has failed to find favour with voters over and over again since the seventies.
In the absence of any leadership from the left, the extreme right have stealthily stolen a march on them by presenting themselves to the dispossessed and disaffected as some kind of politically radical populist movement. They offered simple solutions to people's problems - leave the EU to free up all that money we're paying them to finance British public services; create jobs for British workers by kicking out all the immigrants - which appealed to ingrained fears and prejudices. Just as New Labour captured the traditional Tory middle class vote by convincing them that they could achieve economic success through a mythical, non-ideological, 'third way', so the 'New Right' have captured the traditional Labour working class vote by convincing them that being racist isn't ideological. Somehow, the left has to find a way of addressing the fears and concerns of these voters without resorting to this kind of bigotry and crude xenophobic rhetoric. Of course, that will require a wide-ranging debate, But we aren't going to get that as long as old school political diktats like Corbyn and McDonnel hold sway. Before we can hope to get rid of the likes of Farage and Trump, we have to get rid of them.
I started watching this film more than thirty years ago, when it showed up on BBC2 for a late afternoon/early evening showing. For some reason, I only saw the first twenty or thirty minutes before having my viewing interrupted by something or other. I'd always assumed that I'd catch up with the rest of it the next time it turned up on TV - but it never seemed to get any further screenings. Not that I noticed, anyway. Last week, however, I finally caught up with Danger Route in its entirety on line. Was it worth the wait? Probably not. Which isn't to say that Danger Route isn't a reasonably absorbing ninety minutes or so of entertainment. A solid cast, decent direction and an interesting central plot idea raises it above the level of the average late sixties low budget spy movie.
The cast is headed up by Richard Johnson, one of those actors who always seemed like he should be a bigger star than he actually was, but perpetually seemed to miss out on the really big roles, instead having to settle for supporting roles in big movies. Consequently, Johnson enjoyed a long career playing leads in a rich variety of schlock, culminating in the magnificent Zombie Flesh Eaters. During the sixties, he played a lot of secret agents. Which was inevitable considering the fact that he had a Bond connection. According to some sources he either turned down the role before Sean Connery was cast as 007, or he was passed over in favour of Connery. Whether either of these scenarios is actually true, I have no idea. What is true is that Johnson was friends with Doctor No director Terrance Young who, aghast at the casting of the relatively unknown Connery, told Bond producers Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman that he could secure the then better known Johnson's services if they wanted to drop Connery.
Obviously, they declined his offer and Johnson found himself not only eclipsed as a star by Connery, but also playing surrogate Connerys in a number of action and espionage movies. These included the two Bulldog Drummond updates Deadlier Than the Male and Some Girls Do, which were slickly made and reasonably budget Bond knock offs. Sandwiched between them was the somewhat lower budgeted Danger Route, which seems to take its inspiration from the 'Harry Palmer' Len Deighton adaptations as much as it does from Bond.. Johnson plays Jonas Wilde, an assassin who thinks that he's working for a top secret British intelligence unit, eliminating enemies of the crown. In fact, as he discovers in the course of his latest mission, the unit has been infiltrated by the 'other side' and some of the targets he has eliminated have actually been friendly agents. After the mission goes wrong, he finds himself hunted by the CIA as he tries to uncover the traitor in his own organisation and work out who he can trust. Whilst an ingenious and reasonably original plot idea, it unfortunately becomes bogged down as the twists and turns of the script become far too convoluted. That said, it is to be commended for pitching the viewer into the middle of the intrigue, trusting their ability to pick up the details of what's going on without any tedious and talky scenes of exposition.
Johnson is backed up by a good cast of actors who, like him, were largely never really of the first order in terms of movie roles, but nonetheless never gave bad performances. The likes of Harry Andrews, Gordon Jackson, Barbara Bouchet, Carol Lynley, Sylvia Syms and Sam Wanamaker all give excellent support. The film also boasts some interesting locations in southern England and the Channel Islands and a lot of action involving trains, boats and ships. Although it starts slowly, director Seth Holt ramps up the pace as the film proceeds, using some audacious, but well executed, jump cuts to move the action to a climax. All-in-all, Danger Route is pretty decent B-movie, an unusual diversion into espionage on the part of Amicus, who generally dealt in in horror and fantasy films. Despite a low budget, director Holt delivers a stylish and intriguingly plotted spy movie. I'm not sure if I'd go out of my way to watch it again, but if it happened to turn up on TV while I was channel surfing, I'd probably give it another look.
So, I said that I was going to talk about model railways today, didn't I? Despite all the US election and Brexit-related stuff kicking off over the weekend, I'm a man of my word, so we'll return to that model locomotive I bought off of eBay the other week. As I mentioned last time, I finally got it running. It turned out to be very simple problem - so simple that it took me three hours of tests to spot it. Quite simply, one of the commutator brushes was missing. I say missing, but something had dropped out of the body when I removed it from the chassis to carry out my tests. I employed my usual methodology with unknown objects: put it to one side and come back to it later. Of course, once I realised that I was abrush down, I went back and looked at the mystery object: it was the missing brush. How it come loose and fallen into the body (it is held in place with a sprung wire), I really don't know, but when put back in its proper place, the locomotive ran perfectly. So now I can move on to the next stage of my restoration: removing the existing paint work. This is how it looks right now:
Now, the eagle eyed model railway aficionados amongst you will have spotted that this is both a Wrenn (ex Hornby Dublo) Rebuilt West Country and also wearing a completely fictitious livery. I have no idea who 'N R' were (I'm assuming the 'R' stands for 'Railway'), if they even existed, but they certainly never ran West Country class pacifics in this, or any other livery. Indeed, it should look more like this:
This is another Wrenn West Country I've owned for over twenty years. The BR green livery was the only colour scheme that these locomotives wore in this form during their working lives. That said, you'll doubtless have noted that this one carries the name and number of a Merchant Navy class pacific. Whilst very similar in appearance, the Merchant Navy class were, in reality, somewhat larger than a West Country, with bigger driving wheels and boiler. (The West Country class were originally designed for the Southern Railway as a scaled down, lighter, version of the earlier Merchant Navy, with greater route availability). Wrenn, however, used to put their models out in all manner of guises, with little regard for authenticity. (Many of their name/number/livery variations were produced in very small numbers, making them beloved of collectors, which pushes the prices up on the second hand market. For what it is worth, the 'Clan Line' model I own is one of the most widely produced variants of the 'West Country' model). This one is due for a change of identity as part of a planned refurbishment, when it will revert to being correctly named and numbered as a 'West Country'.
You'll note, also, that it has metal tyred bogie, trailing and tender wheels- this marks it out as coming from Wrenn's later, post 1972, production run. Earlier models, like the newly obtained one, sport plastic versions of these wheels - which marks the blue one out as coming from the early days of Wrenn production. The box (seen below) confirms this and allows me to date the model to roughly 1967-68. (Earlier boxes were slightly different in design, whilst 1969-1971 boxes are marked 'Triang Wrenn', rather than simply 'Wrenn'. From 1972 until the company's demise in the early nineties, the boxes reverted to 'Wrenn' and carried the new company logo of a styleised railway guard).
To return to the recently purchased, blue painted, model, before repainting it into the correct livery, I'm going to have to take the body back to bare metal, (bare plastic in the case of the tender). Doing this is going to require soaking it in some kind of paint remover - I've had various suggestions, ranging from expensive professional products to weak household bleach and even Dettol. None of these are corrosive to plastic, so I'm assuming that they won't damage the die cast metal of the locomotive body. But, even before I tackle the body, I'm going to have to address the chassis: you'll note that whoever did the repainting has also painted the driving wheels, bogie and trailing wheels and the bogie and pony trucks themselves red. Oh, and then there's the tender chassis, also bright red. Unless I disassemble the valve gear and tap the axles out to remove the driving wheels, I'm going to have to paint then in situ, which could be tricky, but probably less tricky than taking the valve gear apart.
So, that's my long-term model railway project. If it goes well, I'll post the progress here, but if you hear nothing more of it, then you'll know that something has gone horribly wrong!
I haven't ranted about Brexit for a while now, have I? Actually, I know that it is a month since I last posted here on the subject. I checked. But, in the light of yesterday's High Court ruling that Parliament must be consulted and approve any deal to leave EU, I felt that I should return to the subject. In fact, it is less the Judicial decision, which is simply a reiteration of the basic tenets of the British constitution, but the disturbing reaction to it in some quarters. All day I've seen screaming tabloid headlines decrying the judiciary and questioning their right to derail 'the will of the people'. It goes beyond the usual nonsense about 'unelected judges', (they might not be elected, but thay are appointed by the Lord Chancellor who is appointed by the prime minister, who is an elected representative and heads a government sustained a majority in the House of Commons, whose members are elected and are actually meant to represent the 'will of the people'), with the right-wing press teetering on the verge of accusing the judiciary of treason, describing them as 'enemies of the people'. On top of that, I've heard numerous vox pops on the radio in which 'ordinary' people demonstrate their shocking ignorance of this country's democratic system by accusing the judiciary of being 'undemocratic' by their upholding of the sovereignty of parliament.
What they all seem incapable of grasping is that the court ruling actually has little to do with trying to prevent Brexit, (though, God knows, many of us wish that it did), but rather to do with avoiding a constitutional crisis and preventing the establishment of a dangerous political precedent. The fact is that in the UK only parliament is sovereign and can make laws binding upon the whole country. A referendum has no constitutional standing whatsoever and its outcome cannot be binding upon parliament, (unless parliament has previously legislated that it can be, of course). Consequently, to have any legitimacy, any actions taken by the government based upon the outcome of a referendum has to be approved by parliament, whether by an Act of Parliament or just a resolution. Moreover, if the government is allowed to simply ignore parliament (the UK's supreme elected authority) and push through legislation of this kind with the justification that it is 'the will of the people' as expressed in a referendum, then the whole concept of parliamentary democracy would be undermined. It would set a precedent by which government's would effectively be able to bypass the normal checks and balances provided by parliament and the courts to introduce legislation which would otherwise be illegal, unconstitutional, repressive or unfair by simply holding a referendum to justify it.
Ultimately, it's a question of whether any individual or elite can be allowed to wield power arbitrarily, without checks and balances. It's pretty much the issue we had a civil war over and the resulting political system evolved to prevent anyone, be they King Charles I or Oliver Cromwell, from being able to enjoy absolute power without democratic safeguards. Not that this seems to bother Theresa May and her merry band of Brexiteers. Not that that should surprise anyone who recalls her tenure as (a very bad) Home Secretary, during which she demonstrated little regard for such things as due process and the rule of law. So, whilst all the Brexit bastards are shouting and screaming about this judicial decision, just bear in mind that that issues far more important than just Brexit are at stake.
OK, I promise not to rant about Brexit again for a while, I think that next time I might just talk about model railways instead. (I managed to get that locomotive I bought on eBay last week running, so I'm about to move forward with a full restoration).
Let's see if I've got this right: Lord Hestletine didn't throttle a dog to death with his bare hands, but has had more than three hundred grey squirrels shot, Is that right? I have to say that waking up to headlines about a former cabinet minister allegedly killing dogs with his bare hands was a prime example of how it is becoming ever more difficult to satirise modern politics. That really was something you just couldn't make up. Indeed, his war against grey squirrels is likewise beyond satire. It is also another example of the appalling prejudice that grey squirrels have to endure in this country - all because they are successful, Everybody likes to go all doe eyed over red squirrels, but their grey cousins are vilified as being usurpers, invaders to these shore who have driven out the beloved indigenous red squirrel. But the fact is that their supremacy over the red squirrel is a matter of natural selection in action. The fact is that they are more adaptable than the red squirrel, smarter, better at exploiting their environment and generally more vigourous. It isn't their fault that the red squirrel is, frankly, utterly inefficient, incompetent and thick. Yet the grey squirrel is condemned for its success, its main crime being that it is am immigrant.
'They came here on ships', protested one person, shocked at my defence of the grey squirrel. Now, where have I heard that before? As I pointed out, so had my and probably their ancestors, on Viking longships and their Saxon equivalents. Even when I was a child I was appalled by the violence and hatred directed toward the grey squirrel. I remember being shocked at seeing the exterminators employed by the local council massacring the squirrel population, shooting the por buggers out of the trees. That said, I don't think it was quite on the same scale that Heseltine has had them mown down. It's a funny thing, but as I've grown older, I've become far more sensitive to the violence often directed at other living beings. Don't get me wrong - I haven't suddenly turned into a vegan - I have no problem with consuming the flesh of animals killed for the purpose. It's part of nature to kill to survive, be that by eating the meat of other animals, or wearing their skin for protection. No, it's the casual and unecessary violence often employed against animals. It might be something to do with the fact that as one's years advance, you become ever more aware of your own mortality, but these days I find myself reluctant even to kill insects. Just recently, I've spent inordinate amounts of time catching and dumping out of the window, the multitudes of ladybirds which have taken to invading my bathroom as I can't bear to kill then en masse, (plus, they'd die anyway if left in the bathroom). I even have a major crisis of confidence whenever I'm forced to wash a huge spider down the plug hole when they crawl into my bath. (I'm afraid I just can't coexist with them). So you can imagine just how traumatised Heseltine's attempts at grey squirrel genocide has left me feeling. The Nazi bastard.
I was watching the news the other day, looking at the latest footage of tanks trundling through the desert as buildings burn and people flee their homes, when it occurred to me that, back in the day, some enterprising exploitation movie producer would have seen the current conflict in Iraq and Syria as a fantastic opportunity to shoot a World War Two movie. I mean, all you'd have to do would be to paint swastikas on the tanks and film them running in one direction, then paint Union Jacks or the Stars and Stripes on them and film them running in the opposite direction. That and get all the accompanying soldiers to swap their modern helmets for coal scuttle helmets and tin hats as appropriate and, with a bit of editing, you've got a battle scene. Let's face it, that's how most of those Italian war movies they shot in Egypt during the sixties and seventies were made. In fact, for all I know, they might have been shot during heated battles between Egypt and Israel. Actually, there is one Italian war movie I've seen, The Battle of Sinai, which was shot in the early seventies, that looks as if it actually was filmed against the background of an Israeli military mobilisation. Certainly, some of the footage of Israeli Centurion tanks knocking out Egyptian T-55s seemed to have been shot during a live-firing exercise where captured Egyptian tanks were being expended as targets.
But it isn't just Italian war movies which use the trick of filming the same tanks, with different markings, running in opposite directions, to give the impression of a battle. Most notoriously, the B-movie Armored Command has the same M48 tanks masquerading as both American and German tanks, cutting between footage of them running in one direction, the the other, down the same street at its climax to simulate armoured combat. (It also uses the same footage of a German soldier breaking from cover and being shot over and over again - you'd have thought that he'd have learned the first time not to run into the open like that). Anzio pulls a similar stunt, (although, to be fair it is a US-Italian co-production, so we shouldn't be surprised), although the tanks don't run in opposite directions according to their colour schemes. But the German and US tanks are, quite clearly, exactly the same tanks, just painted differently. One minute they are grey with German crosses on, the next they are green with Allied stars on their turrets. When they are German panzers, there is also some attempt to disguise them by covering them in camouflage. Nevertheless, they are still clearly the same tanks seen landing on the beach in US colours earlier in the film. The directional technique for differentiating military forces isn't confined to feature films, it is also used in documentaries. The sixties BBC series about World War One for instance, always has the allies moving from, I think, left to right on the screen in archive footage, while the Germans move the opposite way. This required reversing the film sometimes, but simplified things for viewers. It works surprisingly well. Psychologically, it just seems more natural that armies should always be advancing in the same direction.